How Cell Phones Could Become the Next Big Brother

Professor of Law and Computer Science

Jonathan Zittrain is a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources for the Harvard Law School Library, and Co-Founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Previously, he was the Chair in Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University and a principal of the Oxford Internet Institute.  He was also a visiting professor at the New York University School of Law and Stanford Law School.

Zittrain’s research interests include battles for control of digital property and content, cryptography, electronic privacy, the roles of intermediaries within Internet architecture, and the useful and unobtrusive deployment of technology in education.

He is also the author of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop Itas well as co-editor of the books, Access Denied (MIT Press, 2008), Access Controlled (MIT Press, 2010), and Access Contested (MIT Press, 2011).

  • Transcript


Question: What is the next threat to privacy?

When I worry about privacy I worry about peer-to-peer invasion of privacy.  About the fact that anytime anything of any note happens, there are three arms holding cell phones with cameras in them or video records capturing the event ready to go on the nightly news, if necessary.  And I think that does change a lot our sense of what is going on in our neighborhoods.  I mean, right now we basically smooth over everything we don’t hear about with an assumption that it was an average day and now all of a sudden, anything not average in the day will be available for us to see and indexed by location, by time, and probably by actor.  And at that point, I think, our whole perception of what’s going on in our towns or in other towns, starts to change.

I start to think of taking the ingredients we already have and just mixing them together so that on a base of something like Flickr, what you end up with is an ability, as you’re standing in a spot, to say, “Show me every picture taken at this spot in the past ten years that’s been submitted to something like Flickr.”  If the spot happens to be a reproductive health clinic or a flophouse or a church, you can start to see how there can extra sensitivities to that.  Or you can just cross reference and say, “Show me every picture in which this person appears through auto image recognition, even in just the background,” so as I’m walking down the street through something like Harvard Square of Washington Square Park, if I’m in the background of anybody’s video or camera, then I will be understood as having been there at that time.  And I think that’s both powerful and interesting and also an invasion of privacy of the sort that making you worry about whether Facebook is, you know, telling people what product you just bought somehow pales in comparison.

Question: On Controllable Devices

 As we shift away from the personal computer to more defined devices that are themselves in touch with their vendors at all times, iPhones, Kindles, nearly every mobile phone, in fact, these devices are much more controllable, not just then by their vendors, but by anybody who regulates the vendors.  And suddenly we can see, as was attempted by China in the Green Damn Youth Escort Project, trying to see that every new PC being sold in China would have filtering software embedded in it that talks to the mother ship and can update itself on what it will filter, or even just what it will do generally, to have devices that are already baked that way, they don’t have to be transformed that way by software, but out of the box, that’s how they behave, I think that is a wild card that could change the initial observation that every day things are a little bit freer.  And that’s why I’d be keeping an eye on that.

Recorded on August 18, 2009