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Better Engineering, and Better Laws

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
September 8, 2013

Part of the New York Times Room for Debate series.

It’s a noisy, nosy world. For example, our cellphones are nonstop tracking devices that occasionally make calls – and yet we would be lost without their maps. Our shoes can tell hundreds of our closest Facebook friends about our latest jog. Tiny RFID tags, embedded in many objects and devices, have unique IDs that they blurt out to any radio signal that asks. New cars not only phone information back to car makers, but also to other cars. Vehicular communication improves safety but adds new risks that a database of everywhere you drive could become available to hackers, police or insurance companies. We are at the cusp of big changes – good and bad.

We have learned the hard way that we cannot trust companies or governments to show restraint in collecting our data.

The idea of devices chatting away to one another is both radically cool and rightly concerning. Most people want what a data-driven future can provide, but we have learned the hard way that we cannot trust companies or governments to exercise basic decency and restraint in collecting our data. Lack of trust hampers adoption of potentially useful technologies, including California’s decision last week to halt plans for RFID in drivers’ licenses.

How can we have smart devices while preserving our core rights to privacy? First, the key is to include privacy and security from the very start while designing products and components. This way we can use technology without technology using us. Second, we already use firewalls and other approaches to limit who can reach our desktop computers. We could engineer similar technical intermediaries for our new devices. Third, privacy tools should be as simple to use as products themselves. Finally, it is rare for technology to entirely solve the challenges technology creates, so we need new privacy laws that are savvy and wise. There is much work to do, but we can build an awesome future without trading away our human need for privacy.