J003-Content-Scary-Tech_SQThe first time I visited my Cadillac dealership to get my car serviced, I was in for a surprise. When I drove in, a big LED monitor at the front of the bay lit up with the message: “Welcome, Debra Shinder!”  Being a techie, naturally I asked the service guy – who almost sprang out the door to follow up the electronic greeting with a human one, paperwork detailing my car’s history in hand – if there was an RFID chip embedded in the vehicle. He confirmed that there is and we chatted a little about how much technology has changed the auto sales and service business, as well as the cars themselves.

I mentioned the experience to some friends a couple of weeks ago, and got another surprise, although in retrospect I guess I should have anticipated the reaction. Several seemed to not be impressed with how cool this was; instead their response was “that’s kind of creepy.”

I realize there is a lot of sentiment that’s been building over the past years against all sorts of technology that is perceived to be taking away all of our privacy. I’m not immune to those concerns, but I also think many of the naysayers are overlooking the fact that every new technology or discovery has been met with fear, uncertainty and doubt at first. Even the telephone was seen by some as a “privacy invader” and something that would prevent people from getting out and socializing in person – the same complaints that people today make about social media.

I remember when I first started going online back in the 80s. Most of my family and friends didn’t understand what this Internet thing was at all and almost all of them thought it was “kind of creepy” that you could talk to and get to know people thousands of miles away over a computer. When I met my husband online and first started dating him long distance, some of them were appalled. But Tom and I have been married 20 years now, and most of those friends and relatives are now regular users of Facebook and other social sites

To a younger generation of kids who grew up with the Internet as part of their lives, it’s just the normal way to communicate with and meet people. These new technologies will, for better or worse, be the same.  Here’s my take on RFID, NFC, IP cameras, Google Glass and its ilk, smart TVs that “watch us back,” and other “scary” technologies.

I’ve already come out in defense of Google Glass in a previous article on this site. Despite the horrible aesthetics of the initial designs, wearable computing is the future and eyeglasses are the logical extension of the computer. Most of the backlash against Google’s glasses wasn’t centered on how dorky they made you look, though; it was all about “glassholes” and the perception/fear that wearers would be invading everyone’s privacy by taking photos and video of everyone they encountered.

Interestingly, no one seemed to recognize that people have been doing that ever since the advent of the phone cam, or that no such outcry went up years ago when Microsoft proposed the idea of a “life cam” that you wear around your neck to record everything. With governments, private businesses and more and more individual homeowners installing surveillance cameras everywhere, we might as well get used to the idea that we probably are being recorded any time we go out in public. According to estimates published over a year ago, there were at that time more than 200 million surveillance cams in use, and it’s not clear whether the figure included all those web cams that come built into modern laptops or the multiple cameras that grace most smart phones these days. Scary? Yes and no. Certainly ubiquitous cameras can capture footage that can be used against you – but it can also exonerate you from false claims.

As I’ve said many times, technology is neither good nor evil. Every new discovery or invention, from fire to gunpowder to computers to nuclear physics, has been used for both very positive and very negative purposes. And once someone has dreamed it up and figured out a way to implement it, it’s too late to try to put the genie back into the bottle. Outlawing it only means that those who break the laws will have it and the good guys won’t.

RFID (radio frequency identification tagging) and NFC (near field communications) have stirred fears in privacy advocates for obvious reasons. Yes, it is possible for the wrong people to intercept the signals and read them and use the information for the wrong purposes. Some state legislatures have decided the potential for misuse is serious enough to enact statutes governing the use of RFID, particularly when the tags are linked to personal information.

Another area where new technology is raising the ire of some folks is that of “personal drones” (a.k.a. “domestic drones”), which are a miniature version of the devices known as UAVs for “unmanned aerial vehicles” and RPA for “remotely piloted aircraft”) – small radio-controlled flying machines, often equipped with cameras. The commercial drone market has been growing steadily over the last few years, and according to a report this month from CNBC.com, it’s an industry that is on the verge of taking off, so to speak.

As much fun as it might be to own your very own little mini flying machine and see through its “eyes” as it flies over your neighborhood, it’s a trend that has recently inspired its share of controversy.  There have been numerous reports over the past couple of years of people shooting down drones that flew over their property, the most recent concerning a man in Kentucky who shot down a drone that entered his back yard airspace while his daughter was sunning by the pool. Some of the drone-shooters have been fined or arrested, but many feel the same rights to protect your property from human trespassers should extend to protecting it from the mechanical variety.

The law is anything but clear, and depends on what state you’re in. The issue is further complicated by the question of whether the airspace above your home and land constitutes part of your property.  Obviously you don’t own all the air directly above you; otherwise planes would have to get your permission to fly over. But is there a certain amount of vertical space that should be considered sacred? One of the governing concepts when it comes to invasion of privacy is whether a person has an expectation of privacy in the first place. If a person stands across the street and takes pictures of you in your front yard, there’s little you can do since you have no expectation of privacy in a place that’s open to public view. A drone hovering across the street would be the same. But if a person takes a picture by climbing on top of his roof to see into your back yard, you might be able to sue for invasion of privacy, and if he walks up and peeks into your window, in many places he can be charged with a criminal offense. How do you extrapolate all of that to cover drones?

The law hasn’t yet caught up with the technology when it comes to drones and many other recent inventions. We can be sure that there will be a scramble by legislatures to address these issues, and I do believe there is a need for a happy medium that allows us to enjoy the benefits – and yes, the sheer fun – of the amazing new gadgets that are becoming available, while still protecting our privacy as well as our safety. Drones, for example, can potentially pose a danger to manned aircraft if not used carefully and responsibly. However, recent video going around the Internet that purports to be of a drone hitting an airplane wing has been exposed as fake. Drones could also injure birds and other wildlife.

Presently there are no standardized regulations regarding many of these technologies. In a world where overreaction seems to be the norm, I’m sure we’ll see the lawmakers go too far in the other direction. If we as citizens could stop with the hysteria on the one hand and the unfettered and unthinking breaches of tech-usage etiquette (which can be stated as simply as “don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t want them to do unto you”), and if governments and corporations would treat their customers and subjects as if they were members of their own families, there would be no need for clamp-downs that stifle the development, sales and use of fantastic, futuristic technologies that a generation ago were only figments of the imagination.

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