I wonder how much longer it will last to retain the old concept of filling out forms asking for personal information of various types where the end of the form requests a signature under a statement that asserts that the signer agrees everything is truthful under some threat of punishment if it is found to be untruthful. For government forms, the threat takes the form of prosecution for perjury or fraud.
But the form itself is asking for data, and usually very structured data. An address field accepts only an address. A phone number must be a real phone number etc. The form is designed to populate data structures in a database. The forms don’t ask for free from essays in unstructured data in the form of prose that is subject to interpretation.
Increasingly the form fields are checked in real time. For example, a field for an email address must be a real e-mail address. Perhaps the form even sends an email and then asks for the sent code to confirm that you received it. In other cases, the form will check other records for consistency. A zip code must be a valid zip code, a phone number must be one that is registered for use, etc.
With big data stores available, all of this structured data has already been collected elsewhere. The form requests data that it could simply have queried from one of these existing sources. This is especially true with government forms as demonstrated to those who used the health care exchanges to obtain individual health insurance in USA. The website forms dynamically queried various data sources to confirm identity and personal details that were already on file.
In the case of Medicaid requiring no payments, there were rumors that people were automatically enrolled because the systems already had all of the relevant information for need and eligibility. I recall seeing some report on that but I don’t know if it has been confirmed so it may just be a rumor. But, I don’t doubt it could be possible. All of the data needed to make that determination is in some database somewhere and increasingly easily accessible by the government.
A couple years ago, I heard someone suggest that filing the IRS tax forms is superfluous because the IRS already has all the information it needs for the vast majority of tax payers. Tax payers spend hours filling out a form and then signing it with the threat of prosecution for errors that often can be checked immediately by comparison with the data already in IRS’s possession. The only point of the filing is to hook someone into a liability to be prosecuted for the act of filling out a form with data that doesn’t match data that IRS already has.
With the emerging trend described as Internet of Everything where virtually everything will be digitized and stored somewhere, there will come a time when there is no new knowledge that may be gained by asking someone to fill out a form. The only purpose of the form would be a trap to prosecute for lying because the offered information doesn’t match what is already on file.
If everyone already has the information then there is no need to ask for it any more. A reasonable response to a question could be to request the inquisitor to look it up himself. Increasingly that action is simple. Asking a person for information that could instead by queried from a database is a waste of time, prone to transcription errors, and serves only the purpose of setting up that individual for a trap.
Frequently I hear of the strategy of setting up a perjury trap for sworn testimony either in a legislative hearing or in a court case. The scenario appears to be a request for the witness to educate the inquisitors of new information. However, the well prepared inquisitors will already know the answers. Through a set of leading questions eventually the witness provides some testimony that can be refuted. But if that information already exists, then the only point in asking for the testimony was to trap them into violating their oath to tell the truth.
This seems increasingly ridiculous today. In the distant past, the truth was ambiguous and often coming down to judging one person’s word against another. Now or soon, the truth is in a database somewhere often previously provided by that same witness. Recent examples are news reports of discoveries of archived email messages. If the email is archived, then there is no point in asking a person what he remembers he wrote in that email: it is sufficient to just retrieve the email and read it.
With the ubiquity of big data, there is the reasonable option to answer a question with a “that is something you can look up yourself”. There will no longer be a need to ask people anything any more.
Sometime ago, I recall reading a data analytic controversy where pharmaceutical companies were buying prescription records from pharmacies. The records identified the prescribed medicine and the brand delivered, the patient’s name, and the the doctor’s name. The analytics were able to combine this information to identify doctors who more frequently prescribed for a certain health condition indicating that his patients tend to be afflicted with that condition more often. The analytics also showed the doctor’s preference for the competing brand. The sales person would contact that doctor and begin a conversation perhaps with a question about whether the doctor has been prescribing his brand: a question the salesperson already knows the answer. The salesperson did not need any additional information from the doctor except for an acceptance of some free samples and a commitment to consider this brand in future prescriptions.
Since then, I think the data sharing practice was halted but it was probably changed to provide only summary information instead. I don’t doubt that the full data is provided to government regulators who can do the same analysis to identify doctors whose prescription patterns are unusual. In that case, the regulators may ask questions of the doctor and like that earlier sales person already know the answers to the question. It is not unrealistic to expect that the regulators can look it up themselves.
Another more day to day example was described in stories of social encounters where a stranger would approach another and immediately address the person by full name and inquire about the the latest news on some personal detail, perhaps the status of a job or a relationship. This would catch the victim off guard trying desperately to remember ever meeting this person before. What happened was that the stranger used the smart phone to check some social sites to discover someone announcing their presence at the same location and that announcement included an easy link to a personal page that provided personal details including a recent photograph. All of this information was knowable in advance of what in the past would have required an introduction and some familiarity to share such information.
In that case, the point of the story is to criticize the victim for sharing so much personal details on his personal site. I’d argue that the fault was in clinging to an outdated notion that personal information must be provided in person. The victim simply need not be surprised that some stranger would come up to him with so much prior familiarity. Instead, he should expect it.
Stranger: “Hi, My name is Ken”
Victim: “Hi, nice to meet you”
Stranger: “And you are?”
Victim: “Look it up yourself”
In a social setting that seems rude even today, but with increasing use of wearable smart electronics, it is not hard to imagine that we would simply dispense with the archaic practice on introducing ourselves or expecting an introduction. In the near future, an initial conversation between strangers would look like this as they consult their smart phones for information:
Person 1: “Hi Ken”
Person 2: “Hi John”
Person 1: “Are you still driving that clown car you bought in 2008”
Person 2: “It’s a smart car, and I love it.”
This first time encounter may seem unusual for a social introduction, but it is played out already in social media such as twitter or blogs where the first initiation of conversation starts off with full assumption of familiarity and an immediate dive into some particular conversation that normally would take a while to build up with small talk. This experience in social media will be how we address each other socially in the near future.
The social examples are an analogy to more formal inquiries. Often these inquiries start with social norms of introduction and gradual building of trust by exchanging increasingly detailed information. This protocol of building trust will break down once we acknowledge that this information is obtainable without asking directly.
We will need to come up with a new strategy to allow people into our confidence. One strategy is to assume that any information provided in the past is retrievable in the present without answering again. This strategy says that I only need to say something once in my lifetime. That information will be recorded and live in some database somewhere. If someone else needs that information, they can look it up themselves.
This strategy may seem to complicate the archaic practices of witness testimonies, but such practices are already mostly an exercise of setting perjury traps. The information is already available. The only point of asking a second time is to attempt to get the person to violate his oath to tell the truth. If that is not the goal, then there is no point in asking at all other than to provide the illusion of some ancient ritual.
The big data of Internet of Everything really does mean everything. If that is accomplished then everything is available from a data query somewhere. The exercise belongs to the one with the question to find the answer in the appropriate database that has that information already recorded. This is what happens increasingly with crime scene investigations where the primary witnesses are the recorded videos of security cameras. In the future each person will be wearing constantly on cameras sending data to some remote data store. There will be no need to ask a person anything because the information will be in the data store.
The topic of this post is this observation that the end of privacy will mean we will no longer need to ask anyone for any information. If asked, anyone can answer with a “look it up yourself” response. This response will be reasonable because the information is already out there and that it will not be subject to errors of memory or embarrassment avoidance.
I described this as a new strategy of living. This strategy is that we only need to speak some fact once and that one time will be available for anyone to query. When asked of a question that we remember being asked before, we know the best source of that information is the big data store. That’s the point of the example of IRS tax filings: the filing paperwork involved entering numbers provided by a form from the employer where the employer has already provided that exact information to the IRS. Knowing that the data is already out there justifies an expectation that it doesn’t have to be released a second time.
The dark side of this strategy is that it obliterates the notion of sharing of confidence between individuals. We expect anything shared will be public so the only true secrets are those we keep to ourselves. The world without privacy is one where all information that is available will be available from data queries without the need to ask people. The information that is not available is the private information the individual has not yet released. When asked for that information even in the most trusted friendships, the individual will decline to share that information. Once released, the information will cease to be private.
The loss of privacy frees us from self-incrimination because we no longer need to answer questions. On the other hand, our private deepest selves will become aliens to the human world. Each individual will be the last human on an Earth run by the Internet of Everything because there will be no possibility to share his most private thoughts.