Spare a moment to consider semiconductors, so omnipresent in modern day life that they’ve become an afterthought.
But they shouldn’t be. As the tiny workhorses that supply computing power, semiconductors have been spreading outside their traditional home of computers at a rapid pace. They’ve migrated not just to smartphones and tablets, but to cars, TVs, fridges, sensors and a host of other devices.
As semiconductors transform more everyday devices into smart devices, however, even more companies will be downloading their information and storing it, creating a growing data privacy problem.
Do you go roaming in your fridge after midnight for snacks? That habit has not gone unnoticed by your fridge, which is carefully monitoring not just the contents within but how often the door swings open and when.
Any digital interaction, even with a device as seemingly innocent as a refrigerator, leaves a footprint these days. But many would argue that that’s a worthwhile tradeoff for the fridge’s ability to know when you’re out of milk.
Think now of the sacred space of your automobile, particularly if it’s a new model like a Tesla. The moment you take that car out of your driveway — even for a short spin — it’s generating a mountain of data on when it was turned on, how much energy it consumed, how often you hit the brakes, and which direction you drove. All that information is getting stored somewhere.
When aggregated, that information gives the Teslas of the world macro data sets that provide valuable insights into how their cars operate in real-world conditions. This heap of intelligence guides any tweaks that can be made to the product design to improve next year’s model, which is surely a good thing.
But what if their motives weren’t so saintly? It’s not hard to imagine auto companies sharing that data with car insurance companies, who might use it to raise premiums on customers and juice their annual revenues while they’re at it.
Similar concerns haunt healthcare. Our understanding of our own bodies stands to be transformed in profound ways by ever-shrinking semiconductors. Implantables (think pacemakers) and wearables (think Fitbits and Apple Watches) will enable compilation of greater levels of data in greater level detail than ever before.
On the plus side, the number of sensors running on the body at any given time will be able to establish highly individualized benchmarks for temperature, heart rate, blood oxygen levels and a variety of other markers.
With this constant intake of data, it’s possible that cancer screenings and other preventative health measures will be carried out in real time, alerting someone as soon as a particular marker seems irregular. This would be a vast improvement over the current approach to screenings, which treats entire population groups — like men over 45 — as essentially the same.
What’s a little less applause-worthy is if you wake up one day with a free sample of blood pressure medication in your mailbox because the data your health devices logged was handed out to Big Pharma.
Video and image recognition, which is fundamentally made possible by semiconductors, represents another data privacy balancing act for society. In much of the public sphere, when you walk down the street or into an airport or shopping mall, surveillance cameras are identifying you. The camera is converting the images to digital information, and then comparing that image to other images in a database to determine if there’s a match or not. Those lightning-quick calculations are thanks to semiconductors — without them, all you have a is a glorified CCTV.
This near-instantaneous capability to ID people in public spaces is very handy if you’re trying to spot an internationally wanted terrorist who has re-appeared after laying low for several years. But when does having a large-scale deployment of cameras with built-in brains start to tip over into a “Big Brother is watching you” dystopia? Several authoritarian nations around the globe offer a preview of what might await.
We are getting ever closer to a world of ambient computing thanks to semiconductors. In this world, computing is always all around us, and we’ll be empowered with more data and a host of new insights and experiences. But we’ll lose some privacy in the process.
It will be important for us to be aware of the risks and benefits as this technology increasingly shapes our lives — because the transformation powered by semiconductors is underway whether we like it or not.