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In-depth

Will cloud be the enemy or the hero in our dystopian future?

Should we worry that the power of cloud computing seems to be concentrating in the wrong hands?

Storm clouds

There are plenty of visions available of man’s dystopian future. Often, man is on the wrong end of a revolution driven by artificially intelligent machines, empowered by cloud technology. Unless you’re one of those lucky types who always seems to land on their feet – even in a dystopian nightmare - we should all be terribly worried about where cloud computing is taking us, shouldn’t we?

Films like The Matrix foretold of our fate at the hands of The Internet of Things (IoT) when machines got together and enslaved humanity. George Orwell’s disturbing vision for 1984 was more about an internet of thugs, with the state using technology to oppress the population by preventing us from thinking for ourselves and acting independently.

Technology experts are divided about cloud computing’s ability to create such grim oppression. Some will look at incidents of the US National Security Agency (NSA) gaining access to all our personal data and company data  - as it traverses through the cloud – as evidence that Orwellian oppression is already here. We already have a form of Newspeak, where phrases like ‘humbling experience’ when used by politicians, usually mean the exact opposite.

If you think power will eventually concentrate in the hands of major corporations – like Google and Amazon – you might think that the level of automated snooping achievable today is already pretty oppressive. When the Huddled masses aren’t having their privacy violated by NSA, GCHQ and other spying agencies, they are surrendering it via wearable technology and social media.

Is cloud technology skewing everything in favour of the Amazons? How come they can know every detail about our lives, but we can’t even ask them to make a tax contribution?

As the cloud consolidates IT and telecoms, new examples of oppressive use cases appear every day. In Ukraine, mobile phone users received this message on their handsets recently.  “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.”

The Ukrainian government's police force was taking advantage of new legislation to use geo-positioning technology to pinpoint the locations of all mobile phones in use near the scenes of a protest.

A combination of customer ‘relationship’ data, cross referenced with medical records, DNA samples, CCTV and GPS – all sharable and interceptable via the cloud - mean the authorities can construct a picture of what we’re doing every minute of our lives, says futurologist and analyst Clive Longbottom, service director at Quocirca. Opting out is not an option, he says. “People who try to go under the radar will actually stand out more.”

It’s the big data crowd who could take us into Minority Report territory (where big data scientists study our DNA and identify those of us likely to be bad citizens). Even now all the various silos of information about us can be cross referenced across the cloud to find out what sort of people we are, our attitudes to rules and how we interact with others, reports Longbottom.

“A DNA analysis company said recently it can identify those liable to develop certain types of cancer and sell this data on to health insurance companies. This would allow them to only choose good risks,” says Longbottom.

Car insurance companies can charge according to how people drive (according to the data derived from the spy box in your dashboard) and retailers will invade your privacy more often so they can put together tempting deals. There are already systems that bring together cameras, databases and analytical software, across the cloud, which instantly judge each shopping centre visitor. At the moment the judgement is used to decide which advert is played on screens as you pass them. But soon these automated cloud judges might be deciding to cattle prod undesirables out of any prestigious shopping areas.

“At this point, we reach Steven Hawking's nightmare - we have put each individual's future into the hands of artificial intelligence,” says Longbottom. “We will all be found wanting: even the sociopaths who put the rules in place."

We don’t have to accept this horrible version of the future, argues Jon Rogers, professor of creative technology at the University of Dundee. Rogers spoke at the recent MozFest in London – a mass rally organized Mozilla to encourage ‘educators, communicators and technologists’ to fight back and keep the web open. “The cloud doesn’t have to be about big corporations. It’s up to us to take control back,” says Rogers.

The conditions have never been better for citizens to fight back and shape their own IT future, says Simon Devonshire, who manages Telefonica’s investment in digital start ups and is the ‘entrepreneur in residence’ for the UK government’s Department for Business Innovation and Skills. Innovation has never been more open, he argues, with the cloud offering more processing power, software and hardware resources than ever. “We’re in the middle of the most significant revolution ever. Yes, there will always be pain points in transition, but eventually humanity will emerge triumphant.”

If companies like WhatsApp can go from nothing to a $19 billion valuation in five years, there’s nothing stopping the rest of us doing something, he argues. “The cloud means the technical barriers to entry are much lower,” says Devonshire.

Yes, social media and phone tapping create the potential for snooping, says applied futurist Ben Hammersley, but we tend to take all the good stuff for granted that we wouldn’t want to do without. “For every potential evil application of technology, there are a million examples of how life is made better,” says Hammersley.   

Besides, most of the dystopian future scenarios are out of date. Orwell’s nightmare was conceived in 1948 and echoes East Germany under communism – and look what their application of technology did for them.

“Don’t assume all these oppressive agencies are highly accomplished,” says Hammersley, “I’ve been in talks with governments and agencies around the world and the idea that they are steely eyed and efficient is nonsense. They’re bad at being evil. What surprises me about oppressive regimes is that they’re so sh*t at it.”

The reassuring verdict from futurists seems to be that the cloud is too complex and open for narrow minded oppressors. They will never have the capacity to pin it down and shape it to their will. Oppressive regimes are rubbish at technology and creatives will always triumph.

And yet, and yet. Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, which allegedly hacked into Sony Picture’s web site recently, obviously has a few people who understand the cloud. Maybe that’s the first sign that his repressive regime is coming to an end.

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