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NEXT: The Future of Data Privacy

David Staley David Staley NEXT: The Future of Data Privacy
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The Me.Ring is just a concept design at the moment. But if it were to be actually built and widely marketed, its impact would be dramatic.  

The ring consists of a switch: when you are open to having your data shared, you flip the switch to the “on” position. To remain anonymous, a user would switch the ring “off.” The user would be granted the ability to control when, with whom and under what circumstances their data could be shared. The magazine Fast Company quips that it would be “like an Incognito Mode for real life.”  

Many of the cyberpunk science fiction novels I read usually, at some point in the plot, involve a Faraday cage. This is an enclosure made up of a mesh of conductive materials that blocks electromagnetic fields. As a plot device in the novels, it’s usually used as a way to protect a cell phone or other such technology from being detected. I imagine the Me.Ring would be a kind of life-sized, portable Faraday cage that I could step into to shield me from those who would want to seize my data.   

The Me.Ring assumes a technical infrastructure that, while not currently in place, could be relatively easy to establish. 

“Bluetooth and other low-power wireless protocols could communicate, not just with your phone, but with beacons in your environment such as smart turnstiles, sidewalks, cameras, and digital signs. Cities are installing many such sensors already. However, the device isn’t just tracking your steps or alerting you that you have a new email; it’s serving as your liaison and data broker to an invisible world of data trackers.”

This privacy ring is like an Incognito Mode for real life – Fast Company

Rather than allowing others to seize our data without our consent, wearing a Me.Ring would mean that companies or anyone else wanting our data would, in effect, need to explicitly ask our permission.  

What if the Me.Ring and its infrastructure were actualized? I envision three possible scenarios.

Scenario 1: Data privacy as a human right. If wearing a Me.Ring means that companies must formally seek our permission before they can collect our data, users—all of us—would have the ability to assert a degree of control of our digital selves that we currently lack. Wearing a Me.Ring would allow a user to establish an active relationship with their data. This would necessitate everyone who uses a Me.Ring to understand how their digital footprint works.

To help facilitate this understanding, “data literacy” would become a mandatory school subject, in the way some educators would like to financial literacy as a requirement. Turning on a Me.Ring would give us the choice of being anonymous: not unlike the European Union regulation that enshrines “the right to be forgotten,” users will seek a similar “right to be anonymous.” 

Other legal protections would follow from this. Philosophers and legal theorists would begin to write works that explore the idea of personal control of data as a human right. Companies produce various versions of the Me.Ring, with the effect of making it widely accessible and within the budgets of people of even modest means. Me.Rings could have become a status symbol for the wealthy, with access that is reserved only for those who can afford it. Rather than being a luxury enjoyed only by a few, data privacy and the right to be anonymous is established as a fundamental human right.  

Scenario 2: Data privacy is criminalized. Especially since the technology promises to deflect attempts at facial recognition, it is possible that many governments—already in the digital surveillance business—will outlaw the use of Me.Rings, in the way governments once passed laws against radar-detecting equipment. Indeed, since the technology relies upon an infrastructure, governments might make it difficult for the Me.Ring to easily interface with that infrastructure, in the way repressive regimes today control access to the internet and social media. 

Those engaged in anti-government protests, for example, would likely welcome a device that allows them to agitate anonymously. Me.Rings therefore become the tool of choice for dissent, protest, even crime. A Me.Ring might make it easier for criminals to more easily conceal their activities. 

Because they have been outlawed, the demand for Me.Rings goes underground, and a grey market for the devices opens up. Wearing a ring might be too conspicuous, and so a version of Me.Ring technology is developed that is implanted subcutaneously. For some, the incision where the device is implanted then becomes a cultural sign, like a gang tattoo, that signals one’s criminal bravado. Or, for those seeking governmental change, a sub-dermal Me.Ring becomes a signifier of one’s political orientation, in the way pro-democracy activists flashed the Hunger Games-style three-fingered salute.  

Scenario 3: Data privacy as trust busting. While governments might permit and even encourage the widespread use of Me.Rings, it is quite possible that technology companies—many of whose business models depend on the unfettered access to our data—will work to sabotage the Me.Ring. These efforts will first be carried out in court, as tech companies will seek to block the use of Me.Rings. These companies see the writing on the wall, knowing that the technology will change the hitherto asymmetrical relationship between data collectors and data producers. 

Their business model now threatened, many of these companies are faced with the prospect of extinction; even the Big Five—at one time viewed as invincible—contemplate the possibility of bankruptcy. In the short run, and outside of any small legal victories they might achieve, companies limit services to those who own Me.Rings, or even ban their use outright in their Terms of Service agreements. Efforts to enforce this ban, however, prove difficult and those attempts that are successful are met with derision over social media. 

The R&D arms of the big tech firms work furiously on technical ways to counteract the Me.Ring, in an attempt to render it useless. Their reactions to the Me.Ring reveal the hypocrisies of the tech firms, and their reputations lay in tatters.  

At the moment, the Me.Ring is a concept, a design fiction. But a real Me.Ring could prove to be the most disruptive technology developed in the last twenty years.  

David Staley is an associate professor of history, design, and educational studies at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcastCreativeMornings Columbus and is president of Columbus Futurists.

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