That's a twist of a clever phrase that our own Thom Lytle used to describe our increasing participation in sensor networks of all kinds.
In a world of big data analytics, what we think, what we do, how we behave -- are incredibly valuable inputs. There's a powerfully strong incentive to capture our digital exhaust as we move through life.
In so many of these models, there's no practical way anyone can opt out. We're increasingly being sensored whether we approve or not.
Not to be overly negative, but there's scant chance of our legal systems ever hoping to catch up to where technology has so quickly brought us.
So I believe the topic of "sensorship" -- our willing and increasingly unwilling participation in data gathering exercises -- is going to be an important one.
Are You A Sensor?
If you travel by air, you're clearly being sensored whether you like it or not.
You buy a ticket, you pay by credit card, you pass through security, and so on. At each step, you're leaving sensor data that's free to gather for various purposes. Some you may agree with, others you may not. But -- if you choose to travel by air -- you don't really have an option regarding your "sensorship" in that activity.
If you drive on public roads, there's a good chance you're providing sensor data as well. You pass through electronic toll stations, you buy fuel and pay with a credit card, you pass through umpteen traffic cameras and in-road sensors.
Hard to imagine how you'd get anywhere on a regular basis without being an unwilling sensor participant.
If you send your kids to any school in the US, you (and your kids) are providing sensor data. Educators are gathering as much information about your offspring (and your environment) in an effort to provide a better educational outcome. I suppose your only alternative is home schooling, but if you purchase educational materials online, you're still probably contributing to sensor data.
If you research or buy anything online, you're being sensored. If you buy property and pay taxes, you're also being sensored. If you vote, you've been sensored. If you go to a doctor, you've been sensored. If you're employed in any way, you've clearly been sensored. If you walk down the street and cross in front of a camera, you've been sensored.
And, of course, if you use a mobile device, you are most definitely being sensored :)
As prepration for this blog post, I spent 10 minutes just thinking about sensor networks that I either voluntarily or involuntarily participate in. I got to about 50, and stopped. It was an eye opening thought exercise.
Bottom line: there is no way I can participate in modern life with being an unwitting participant in untold dozens of information gathering exercises.
And the same is true for anyone reading this blog.
Historical Notions Of Privacy Aren't Enough For The New World
I am no US Constitutional scholar, but much of our historical perspective centered around the notion of one's home (or other places provided for similar purpose) being a key bastion of privacy.
While we may think we enjoy privacy in our own home, many of our activites within the home involve outside participants thanks to the the internet: our choice of programming, our interactions with outside services, and so on.
And that's before we get to hanging IP addresses on every widget in the house.
As a society, we've become collectively unclear as to what's private and what's not. Since we've largely lost the ability to opt out, any entity that's gathering the information gets the de-facto authority to decide how our sensorship will be put to use. We can complain after the fact, but not before. And we've just started to explore the intense ethical implications associated with freely gathering information.
This lack of societal clarity has given birth to some fascinating organized resistance around some of the most seemingly mundane topics, like smart meters for power.
There are occasional bright spots, though. A recent US Supreme Court ruling limits the ability of law enforcement to turn us into unwitting sensors, for example -- placing a GPS on our cars.
But, from where I sit, it's a small drop in a very large bucket.
What Makes This Devilishly Hard
For starters, an increasing amount of data is being gathered passively. We can't opt out of what we don't know about. Think about that the next time you spot a video camera in a public place.
Secondly, many of these data gathering activities are clearly good thing: e.g. ethically responsible with valid rationales and good controls behind them -- as individual gathering exercises. Where it gets murky is when diverse data sets are correlated in a way that they were never intended, which is the basic premise behind big data analytics if you really think about it.
An early example of this is now folklore.
Third, many of the mashed-up models are themselves ethically responsible and have valid rationales behind them -- improving education, optimizing healthcare, minimizing carbon footprint and the like. You look at what these people are doing with big data analytics to help the general good, and you don't want to be the one to slow them down.
Sensorship is making the planet a better place for all.
Fourth, when an individual doesn't like what's being done with their data (for valid reasons or otherwise), there is no efficient mechanism for redress, other than hiring expensive lawyers or running a social media influencer campaign.
And, as a final note, a lot of this data is going to be a lot easier to get to before long. Between "open data" government initiatives and new business models, we're going to quickly be awash in data sets that are thousands of times richer than the ones we have today.
When It Comes To Sensorship, There Are No Easy Answers
I closely watched as the internet became more widely available during the late 1990s. Sure, there was an outcry about the perils and evils of the internet, but -- on the balance -- most of us would agree that the world is a far better place because of it.
And many of us learned to adapt to the new challenges, like raising kids in the information age.
Certain vested interests fight vigorously against various aspects of globalization, but it's hard to argue against the observation that the world -- on the whole -- is quickly becoming a better (yet different) place because of it.
Change is never easy -- for us as individuals, or us as a society.
Me? I've decided to embrace my sensorship.
The potential for bad is far outweighed by the potential for good -- both for me as an individual, and for me as a member of society. I choose to be sensored.
There will be occasional unpleasant experiences ahead I'm sure, but understanding that and agreeing to face what may come puts me at ease to a certain extent.
Besides, the alternatives are far worse :)