Computer pioneer takes privacy broadside

Privacy commissioner takes issue with sensor-monitoring scenario

British computer pioneer Andy Hopper, the final keynote speaker at the Australasian Computer Science Week conference, came under fire from Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff for his frank predictions of a society where sensors monitor everyone’s energy consumption, and make graphically-presented data available on a public website.

Hopper raises such strategies as one possible way of using technology to combat climate change and other threats to the environment.

See also: Is Energy waste the new terrorism

Schroff accused him of seeing such surveillance technology as “an ethics-free or moral-free zone”. Hopper was quick to deny this, saying his responsibility was to communicate future scenarios and open them up for discussion.

A Fellow of the Royal Society, Hopper has made a particular study of technological solutions to negative environmental effects and sees connected computers as a potential nervous system of the planet, sensing and correcting dangerous trends.

In responding to Shroff, he questioned whether the new generation, with its enthusiastic use of social networking websites, is as solicitous of privacy as their parents. Regulation should not be indiscriminately applied when there could be serious environmental and economic consequences, he says.

The democratic decision might be to “use the data to change behaviour by enticement”, rather than the strict rules of a “Big Brother” society, he says.

Hopper also contends reciprocal visibility will bring balance rather than imbalance. While the authorities can see what you’re doing, you will be able to observe their activities too.

Later, speaking with Computerworld, he says the monitoring data need not have any identifying information attached to it. When it was pointed out that a maps of people’s homes emitting excess heat was a strong identifier, he challenged our reporter to come up with a better idea.

On a less controversial front, Hopper talked of introducing efficiency to computing by automatically turning off terminals and servers when not needed, and redistributing computing workload.

“Very thin clients” can greatly reduce the power now needed on every desktop, he says. Even small matters like placement of data on a disk can be power savers.

He also discussed placing datacentres and other power sinks close to underexploited sources of energy – moving data in pursuit of the sun around the planet and even placing them at sea or in other uninhabited areas with an accompanying wind generator or solar panels.

Many human interactions that now take place face-to-face can be replaced by meetings in digitally simulated spaces, Hopper suggests.

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Tags technologyenergymarie shroffandy hopper

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