In the year 2025, what will privacy look like?
That's the question the Pew Research Center's Internet Project put to more than 2,000 technology experts and analysts this past year with its latest report on Internet privacy.
The general consensus, the report said, is that living a public life will be the new normal, with most people looking at the loss of privacy as a fact of life.
The problem of shrinking privacy has become more apparent in the wake of the NSA scandal and hacking of private emails and photos from celebrities and most recently, with Sony Pictures, of private corporations.
If society abandons the idea that privacy is a right, filmmaker Tiffany Shlain said, that's a different problem with bigger implications, like class and economic division.
"In 2025, everything will be transparent. People will not have the illusion of privacy," Shalin said in the report. "This will, of course, have consequences."
One prediction several experts considered in Pew's report was the idea that privacy will become a luxury available to people who can pay for services that provide privacy.
"(Privacy as a luxury) also has the unfortunate effect of establishing a new divide: the privacy rich and the privacy poor," research scientist Kate Crawford said in the report. "Whether genuine control over your information will be extended to the majority of people — and for free — seems very unlikely."
Rainie said many of the respondents felt that the idea of privacy shifting from a right to a product would be accelerated as the "Internet of Things" becomes more integrated into everyday life.
“These experts think the rise of connected devices will produce amazingly large volumes of data about people and their activities,” Rainie said. “One respondent joked about how our ‘smart appliances’ are going to ‘tattle’ on us if we misbehave in some way.”
The Internet of Things refers to a networking of objects that are able to communicate and relay information. A classic hypothesis of how the Internet of Things might work, as cited in a Pew report from May, is a milk carton (fitted with sensor) transmitting to a "smart refrigerator" that it is almost empty, and the refrigerator notifies the homeowner to buy more milk when they're near a grocery store.
That might sound revolutionary, but to some experts, the Internet of Things has big implications for privacy violation. Similar to how Google creates Web ads by monitoring what websites someone visits, homeowners may have little control over how much information "smart" appliances and items relay — or to whom.
"By 2025, these (privacy) trends are likely to be exacerbated by the growth of the Internet of Things and the far greater degree of intrusiveness they will enable,” said David Ellis, director of Toronto’s York University Department of Communication Studies.
University of Maryland computer science professor Ben Shneiderman said that while privacy may become a good rather than a right, society will simply prioritize services that protect private information.
“The worst cases will be stopped, and Internet benefits will outweigh threats,” Shneiderman said. “Premium services that offer more privacy will be valued.”
Researcher Mark Cushman worried that society stands to lose a lot if it sacrifices privacy for the conveniences the Internet provides.
“Too many people will accept the subversion of privacy as inevitable and just a 'sad fact of life,’ ” Cushman said.
The future may not be so bright for those who try to protect themselves by disconnecting, either, said William Schrader, co-founder of PSINet, one of the world’s first Internet Service Providers.
“They would only use cash, not own a phone, not have a tax identification number, et cetera,” Schrader predicted in the report. “These off-grid people will be treated by authorities worldwide as suspect in some way, simply because they choose not to be tracked.”
What none of the experts were able to agree on is what form a solution will take, but some theories included different forms of regulation to protect privacy, be it from the government or private corporations. Technology futurist Marcel Bullinga told Pew that the future of privacy regulation would come down to one factor: Public trust.
“Providers who refrain from owning their customer's data, and stick to facilitating the owner in handling their data in a trusted way, will win. This means Google and Facebook will lose,” Bullinga said.
If society fails somehow to come up with a standard to protect privacy, the Wall Street Journal’s Neil McIntosh predicted, it could lead to a backslide of all the good things the Internet has wrought.
“We will start to hand back the digital revolution's gains in knowledge, productivity, and prosperity if this is not sorted out,” McIntosh said.