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Originally published Sunday, June 29, 2014 at 8:03 PM

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Drones, data, digital tracking: Someone’s watching over you

We need to keep an eye on the technology that’s keeping an eye on us.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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In the future, I’m guessing, a drone hovering outside your window won’t be alarming. We’ll have adapted to the intrusiveness, or maybe there won’t be a drone there because we will have created restrictions to preserve our privacy. It could go either way.

We humans are set apart from most other species not just by our really useful opposing thumbs, but by having the ability to think about the future and therefore to affect how it turns out. It’s an ability that works well in the short term, but, as with weather prediction, the further we try to see into the future, the fuzzier our vision becomes. Still, we have to try because success gives us tremendous survival advantages.

A drone peeking through a window would be right at home in a sci-fi movie, but the incident was less dramatic than it first seemed. A woman in a 26th-floor apartment in downtown Seattle thought the drone was watching her get dressed. A company in Portland later said the drone belonged to it and was photographing property for a construction company, not spying on individuals.

The drone incident set me thinking about recent announcements from Amazon, Google and Apple that will shape our future. Those companies are keeping an eye on you, or at least on your data, and not secretly. Amazon announced this month that its new Fire Phone will make life easier for users to shop for and buy products from Amazon when they use a new app that can identify products phone owners are looking at or songs they’re hearing.

Most of us are already having our habits analyzed. Netflix keeps track of what I watch so that it can suggest movies or TV shows, and Amazon does the same with books and other purchases.

Sometimes digital tracking still surprises me. I was shopping for shirts online at home recently and the next day the browser on my work computer showed me a couple of ads for shirts. Stuff like that happens from time to time and reminds me the Web can find me wherever I am. That’s usually helpful, but sometimes it concerns me, though not enough to work at pulling the digital shades.

My auto-insurance company sent me an invitation to install a device on my car that would monitor my driving and send information to the company that could be used to lower my rates. It sounds like a good idea, but even benign information can be misused. I’m still thinking about it.

And I think it’s reasonable to wonder what happens when one or two companies have fingers in multiple aspects of a person’s life.

Google and Apple are also spreading their presence across multiple platforms and tying them together ever more tightly, not just phones and computers and tablets, but cars and home devices.

Apple has its home-automation product, HomeKit, which could take home automation to another level.

Google and Apple both announced new software for cars this year. It makes good business sense to draw customers ever more tightly into one universe. Companies have been doing more and more of that in recent years. It’s hard to switch when all your stuff is in one company’s cloud or to change any gadget when they’re all tied together so nicely.

Most of these new capabilities are cool and convenient, but maybe we can’t see the full effects yet.

Sometimes sci-fi images occur to me: the optimistic technological world of “Star Trek,” or the suggestion of “The Matrix” that technology will turn the tables and control us, or maybe Hal from “2001: A Space Odyssey” just doing what it thinks is best for the mission.

Maybe there’s a different script in which we gradually evolve from nation-states to company-states not defined by physical territory but by which systems define our lives: a Google person, an Amazon person. We’ll be bundled people. Or, less dramatically, we’ll just shop more, spend more and freak out if the power goes out.

Maybe there’s nothing to worry about, but I think we probably should keep an eye on who and what’s at the window just in case.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com



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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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