Elon University & Pew Research Center report on the future of privacy

A new survey of tech experts by Elon's Imagining the Internet Center and the Pew Internet Project explores the complex issues of privacy in the digital age.

Are privacy and personal data rights “dead” in the digital age or merely in transition? More than 2,500 technology experts and analysts were nearly evenly divided when they were asked the question, “Will policy makers and technology innovators create a secure, popularly accepted and trusted privacy-rights infrastructure by 2025?” Fifty-five percent of the experts invited to respond to this query by Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center and the Pew Research Center answered “no,” and 45 percent answered “yes.”

These findings emerged from an “opt-in” invitation for comments on the future of privacy that was distributed to technology builders, researchers, managers, policymakers, marketers, analysts and those who have been insightful respondents in previous studies. Since the earliest days of the Internet, privacy has been a central concern in global deliberations regarding the future of digital life. The people responding to this canvassing shared detailed written elaborations that provide a snapshot of where they feel things stand. It reveals their expectations as to what may emerge in the next decade or so. 

“The vast majority of experts agree that people who operate online are living in an unprecedented condition of ubiquitous surveillance,” said Lee Rainie, a co-author of the report, director of the Pew Research Internet Project and a member of Elon’s School of Communications Advisory Board. “Most of the participants in this study, whether they answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about the possibility of creating a trusted privacy infrastructure said that living in public is the new default mode. People online share details about themselves in order to enrich friendships, find or grow communities and act as economic agents, and personal data are the raw material of the knowledge economy. The opinions shared in this study reveal experts’ opinions on the future of privacy in light of likely technological change, the ever-growing monetization of digital encounters and the shifting relationship of citizens and their governments.”

The study participants who said they have some hope for citizens’ enhanced control over their personal data said new tools will give people the power to choose to share information in a tiered approach that offers varied levels of protection and access by others. “Some said a backlash against privacy invasions in people’s digital lives will inspire the structuring of a new equilibrium between consumers, governments and businesses and more-savvy citizens will get better at hiding things they don’t want others to see,” Rainie noted.

However, more than half of the respondents to this study said such an outcome is highly unlikely. 

“Many said it is not possible to create an effective privacy rights system,” explained Janna Anderson, director of Elon’s Imagining the Internet Center. “They said governments and industry have very little incentive to reverse the already quite-invasive status quo while they have much to gain from ongoing losses of civil rights in regard to individual privacy and data ownership. Some wrote that the ‘genie is already out of the bottle’ and said people will continue to accept subversion of privacy as an inevitable fact of life, as an expected tradeoff for something of value. One wrote that, ‘Privacy will be a premium luxury commodity.’”

Danah Boyd, a research scientist for Microsoft, said, “I expect that the dynamics of security and privacy are going to be a bloody mess for the next decade, mired in ugly politics and corporate greed.” Leah Lievrouw, a professor of information studies at the University of California-Los Angeles, said, “The capture of such data lies at the heart of the business models of the most successful technology firms (and increasingly, in traditional industries like retail, health care, entertainment and media, finance, and insurance) and government assumptions about citizens’ relationship to the state.” Stowe Boyd, the lead researcher for GigaOm Research, wrote, “The powers that be will not come together to support this, and the technological underpinnings of the massively distributed infrastructure of the Web—changing all the time—can’t be easily curtailed… We have seen the emergence of publicy as the default modality, with privacy declining. People have come to rely on implicit norms that do not take into account big-data algorithms or the NSA reading literally everything, or they accept the hypothetical consequences of openness as a byproduct of its direct effects.”

“We are at a crossroads,” noted Vytautas Butrimas, the chief adviser to a major government’s ministry. He added a quip from a colleague who has watched the rise of surveillance in all forms, who proclaimed, “George Orwell may have been an optimist,” in imagining Big Brother.

A small selection of quote excerpts from the Future of Privacy report

Following are more than 80 brief excerpts from longer written statements made by a number of the top contributors to this study in answering this research question. Read the full 77-page report for more details, and you can also see hundreds of additional opinions by reading the complete sets of credited and anonymous responses to this question on the Imagining the Internet site at these URLs:

> Credited responses

> Anonymous responses

Mark Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), said, “Within 10 years, there will be much more contentious battles over the control of identity, mobility, communications and private life. The appropriation of personal facts for commercial value—an issue that began to emerge this year with Google and Facebook’s sponsored stories—are a small glimpse of what lies ahead.”

Bob Briscoe, chief researcher in networking and infrastructure for British Telecom, observed, “Society’s memory is short—Stalinism, Maoism, Nazism, and McCarthyism happened too long ago to worry about.”

Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center at the City University of New York, wrote, “Government, threatened by the redistribution of power brought by the Net, could succeed in claiming sovereignty over it, throttling its freedoms. Business could overstep its trust with consumers and bring regulation into place. Media could succeed in breeding moral panic—technopanic—over anything that could go wrong. But, I hope that enlightened self-interest will prevail.”

Andrew Bridges, a partner and Internet law litigator and policy analyst at Fenwick & West LLP, wrote, “There will be no trusted privacy-rights infrastructure that is effective against government surveillance. Unless government surveillance of all aspects of society and of all individuals gets under control, all norms about privacy will become hollow, and the expectation of privacy will be nil. We will have to reorder all our actions to reflect the reality that there is no privacy except for the secrecy associated with the ‘Security Class,’ namely those persons who get to know about others without their own actions and knowledge being known.”

Alex Halavais, a social sciences professor at Arizona State, said, “Our language around privacy may evolve. The word, on its own, is too broad to encapsulate the broad range of concerns. Until the issue of ‘privacy’ is appropriately segmented, we will have a tough time either talking about it or addressing it.”

Vint Cerf, Google vice president and chief Internet evangelist, responded, “Corporations and service providers will feel pressure to implement practices including two-factor authentication and end-to-end cryptography. Users will insist on having the ability to encrypt their email at need. They will demand much more transparency of the private sector and, especially, their governments. Privacy conventions will evolve in online society—violations of personal privacy will become socially unacceptable. Of course, there will be breaches of all these things, but some will be accompanied by serious social and economic downsides and, in some cases, criminal charges.”

Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, wrote, “If capable people of good will—on both policy and tech sides—can connect, then this can happen.”

Alice Marwick, author of “Status Update,“ predicted, “It will be quite difficult to create a popularly-accepted and trusted privacy rights infrastructure. This is for a number of reasons. First, countries, regions, and cultures differ in their approaches to privacy.”

Alf Rehn of Abo Akademi University wrote, “As privacy is becoming increasingly monetized, the incentive to truly protect it is withering away, and with so much of policy run by lobbyists, privacy will be a very expensive commodity come 2025. Some of us will be able to buy it, but most will not. Privacy will be a luxury, not a right—something that the well-to-do can afford, but which most have learnt to live without.”

Clifford Lynch, director for the Coalition for Networked Information, said, “Government and industry have aligned and allied to almost totally eliminate consumer and citizen privacy. This will not be allowed to change at scale—it is too convenient and too profitable for all parties involved.”

Henning Schulzrinne, an Internet Hall of Famer, technology developer, and professor at Columbia University, observed, “There will be increased pressure to gather more data on consumers—i.e., to price-differentiate offerings in near-monopoly settings.”

Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said, “As youth who grow up in a culture of exchanging data for service get older, the public will, on average, care even less about their privacy and data security by 2025. If the Snowden revelations do not shift public opinion, what will?”

Ben Shneiderman, professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, wrote, “The worst cases will be stopped, and Internet benefits will outweigh threats. Premium services that offer more privacy will be valued.”

Jerry Michalski, founder of REX, the Relationship Economy eXpedition, wrote, “The idea that some entity is going to relent and not store our data, and that we will have confidence that our data is not replicated for nefarious use somewhere, is naive… By 2025, you will be considered a non-person if you do not have embarrassing photos or videos online from your misspent youth. People who were very parsimonious about sharing personal information will be less credible, and will be trusted less, because others will not be able to see any of their indiscretions—the things that make them human and more trustworthy.”

Bill St. Arnaud, a self-employed Internet consultant, wrote, “Companies and individuals will build a far more secure, encrypted, end-to-end Internet—i.e., a commercial TOR.”

Victor Bahl, director and research manager for Microsoft Research, wrote, “Different form-factor devices will make it harder for users to understand what they are compromising.”

Alison Alexander, a University of Georgia professor, wrote, “Invasion of privacy will be normed by public acceptance of what was previously considered improper. Privacy will continue to be threatened by new ways to learn more about everyone.”

Peter McCann, a senior staff engineer in the telecommunications industry, responded, “A new infrastructure of pseudonymous communication and transaction will be created over the next few years, with robust privacy protections built in. These protections will take the form of a distributed database, where cooperation among many entities will be required to reveal personal information about a user, making the secret warrant useless, and warrantless intrusions on privacy impossible.”

John E. Savage, chair in computer science at Brown University, and a fellow of the IEEE and the ACM, wrote, “A secure, accepted, and trusted privacy-rights infrastructure on the Internet, at the global scale, is impossible for the foreseeable future… In democratic countries, bilateral and multilateral agreements respecting the privacy of citizens for commercial purposes are likely to be developed. It is highly unlikely that nation states will forswear invasion of individual privacy rights for national security purposes.”

Jim Hendler, an architect of the evolution of the World Wide Web, and professor of computer science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, wrote, “People will be more aware of how their information is being used, who is allowed to collect it, and what redress they have when there are violations; however, the amount of personal information that will be available, and the potential for abuse, will also grow rapidly.”

Paul Jones, a professor at the University of North Carolina and founder of ibiblio.org, responded, “Like it or not we are having to relearn the social behavior of small towns: how to cooperate, tolerate, or just ignore differences. Frankly, we were not so great at all of that when we were in small towns. Now, we get another chance to try to live like a Family of Mankind.”

Jeremy Epstein, senior scientist at SRI International, wrote, “Consumers will continue to complain about privacy, but they will not be willing to do anything about it. We will still give up our information for a ten-cent discount on a cup of coffee or shorter lines at the tollbooth. It will be similar to the (mythical) boiling frog—we will continue to lose privacy one degree at a time, until there is none left at all.”

Isaac Mao, chief architect of Sharism Lab, wrote, “New, disruptive architectures or tools will emerge due to the alerts Snowdens and governments give us. Privacy will be less sensitive as more technologies can be helpful to individual users, and at the same time, privacy theft will be more easy to be tracing if abuses happen.”

Adrian Schofield, manager of applied research for the Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering, wrote, “The policy makers will lag behind the technology innovators, but the demand for an acceptable, workable global network will drive the required solutions. Most people will accept that they live ‘open’ lives of little interest to ‘snoopers’ of any sort. There will be ways of securing private data.”

Kath Straub, of Usability.org, responded, “By 2025, biometrics will allow unique and secure identification of individuals. Apps and content will continuously tailor themselves to the needs and whims of the individual.”

Neil McIntosh, a British journalist working for a major US news organization, wrote, “Despite this ongoing arms race, I would expect the privacy infrastructure to be built by the market because the consequences of failure are huge. We will start to hand back the digital revolution’s gains in knowledge, productivity, and prosperity if this is not sorted out.”

Kate Crawford, professor and researcher, wrote, “In the next 10 years, I would expect to see the development of more encryption technologies and boutique services for people prepared to pay a premium for greater control over their data. This is the creation of privacy as a luxury good. It also has the unfortunate effect of establishing a new divide: the privacy rich and the privacy poor. Whether genuine control over your information will be extended to the majority of people—and for free—seems very unlikely, without a much stronger policy commitment.”

Paul M.A. Baker, associate director at the Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) at the Georgia Institute of Technology, predicted, “‘National security’ will continue to be the justification for monitoring of information flows, justified by regulators, and the objective of monetizing or generating resources will drive the erosion of individual data privacy from the private sector side.”

Fred Hapgood, a self-employed science and technology writer, responded, “The ability of machines to recognize and make inferences from features of everyday life, online and off, will continue to improve, and access to those abilities will get cheaper. As they do, new privacy issues will come up over and over again. By 2025, I suspect that support for imposing a much greater degree of transparency on governments and other information consumers will be much greater.”

Olivier Crepin-Leblond, managing director of Global Information Highway Ltd., predicted, “By 2025, blatant cases of abuse of personal privacy will have been so publicised that the public will be much better informed than it is today. People might still be intent on giving out personal information, but they will want to know why and how it will be used—and have the means to make sure companies use it as they have declared they would.”

Mark Johns, a professor of media studies at a liberal arts college in the United States, said, “The concept of personal privacy, pervasive in the West today, will become quaint. That said, there will always be efforts toward the clandestine, especially among those involved in illegal or stigmatized activities.”

Hal Varian, chief economist for Google, wrote, “There is no putting the genie back in the bottle. Widespread sensors, databases, and computational power will result in less privacy in today’s sense but will also result in less harm due to the establishment of social norms and regulations about how to deal with privacy issues. By 2025, the current debate about privacy will seem quaint and old-fashioned. The benefits of cloud-based, personal, digital assistants will be so overwhelming that putting restrictions on these services will be out of the question. Of course, there will be people who choose not to use such services, but they will be a small minority. Everyone will expect to be tracked and monitored, since the advantages, in terms of convenience, safety, and services, will be so great.”

Howard Rheingold, a pioneering Internet sociologist, responded, “From the state to the private sector, surveillance won. At the time of this writing, Google Glass and other surveillance-capable, Web-connected wearables have not been unleashed. It is impossible to tell how people will react to the presence of multiple strangers in almost every public situation, equipped to capture still images and stream video—and also equipped with facial recognition capabilities. Citizens will join the state and digital businesses in the surveillance game.”

Brian Behlendorf, Internet pioneer and board member of several nonprofits and for-profits, wrote, “We will likely give up the notion of public physical location as personal data, due to both official location tracking by governments (i.e., toll road payments, police car license plate scanning) and private-sector tools that track phone IDs, faces, and other personally-identifiable bits of data when people walk by or into retail shops or other interesting points. But, in the other direction, we will have even stronger rules and societal expectations against surveillance (government and private) upon the activities within people’s homes or other enclosed spaces. There will be no tolerance for drone peeping toms, sniffing the wireless emissions from tablets, displays, and more. There will continually be new technologies for surveillance—each of which will spawn demand for counter-technologies. This arms race will become more a part of our national conversation about human rights, the concept of the confidential vote, and the rights of private individuals and companies to not be compelled to become agents of the surveillance state.”

Leah Lievrouw, a professor of information studies at the University of California-Los Angeles, wrote, “Many people have begun to affect an attitude of dismissive cynicism about privacy and surveillance to justify their disengagement with privacy and autonomy issues: ‘They know everything you do anyway,’ where ‘they’ includes anyone or anything from Google to TSA to ISP’s to insurance companies, educational institutions, copyright owners, law enforcement, government, credit agencies, and so forth. I am not sure that those adopting this attitude have a very clear sense of just how extensive the data capture, and data analytics, really are, but it is a habit of mind and public opinion that does not suggest that privacy norms will be stronger in 10 years than they are now.”

Francis Heylighen, a Belgian cyberneticist investigating the evolution of intelligent organization, wrote, “A key enabling technology for the future Internet will be a universal, secure standard for unambiguously establishing a person’s identity…The reasons why standardization is slow to emerge tend to be social, economic, and political, rather than technological, as different corporations, governments and organizations are not inclined to exchange the valuable information they hold. An additional obstacle is people’s legitimate fear for invasion of privacy and abuse; however, without universal regulation, abuse of private information by hackers, corporations, or governments is more, rather than less, likely, as no one knows who has access to which personal information, and as hardly any laws exist that specify what organizations can and cannot do with the information they possess. Technologically, it is perfectly possible (albeit non-trivial) to develop secure schemes that anonymize data so that only the ones that really need information about an individual can get access to the specific data they require, and to nothing else.”

Barry Chudakov, founder and principal of Sertain Research, wrote, “We will continue to monetize watching and tracking; cameras and recognition technologies will create ‘everyware.’ As we do, rights and choices will collide; we will struggle to satisfy forces of personal privacy, secure data, compelling content, and tracking and analytics… Yes, more average persons will start to understand opt-in data capture and monitoring protocols that enable tracking and analytics. But, when our gestures and bodily identifiers—gait, ear lobes, eye movements, faces, emotional responses, or behaviors and choices—are the content of that tracking and analysis, we ourselves become the abstraction. I do not believe that, in a decade, we will have resolved all the quandaries of this new reality. We will become smarter about it, but we will also be more conflicted.”

Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review, responded, “I expect the capacities of the surveillance state to always exceed the protections of ordinary people. Perhaps, people will come to think of their private information as an asset, which they will selectively release to organizations and companies in exchange for certain conveniences or services.”

Nick Arnett, business intelligence expert, and creator of Buzzmetrics, wrote, “Offline time in private homes will be increasingly important as refuges from monitoring and analysis.”

Nigel Cameron, president of Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, based in Washington, DC, wrote, “A language of privacy has yet to be properly developed, which is why, so often, people seem unconcerned. No business will prosper without consumer confidence.”

Mike Cushman, an independent researcher, wrote, “Too many people will accept the subversion of privacy as inevitable and just a ‘sad fact of life.’”

Larry Gell, founder and director of the International Agency for Economic Development (IAED), responded, “By 2025, there will have been enough collection and monitoring of anyone connected to the Internet that there will be no need for privacy. Your total privacy is almost gone at this point already… Once you get everyone to throw away their computer and only use their cell phones for everything, you have them and everything about them.”

Tom Jennings, a respondent who chose not to share additional identifying details, wrote, “‘Apps,’ as opposed to flexible multi-purpose, adaptable programs running on general purpose computers (laptops, etc.), will further ensure the death of any egalitarian use of the Net; ‘apps’ turn Net services and their human users into ‘read-only’ users consuming information produced by content-providers.”

Mike Roberts, Internet pioneer and longtime leader with ICANN and the Internet Society, responded, “The social/political space will continue to display tension between communitarian and libertarian views despite technology evolution.”

Tim Bray, an active participant in the IETF, and technology industry veteran, wrote, “I am confident that the engineers can connect the technology dots, given a solid policy foundation to work on. I hope we have a keener appreciation that privacy is a basic benefit of modern civilization, much like indoor plumbing and elections.”

Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, responded, “Innovation and monetization, on the one hand, and choice, on the other, are in tension, if not in conflict, with many business models integral to the Internet and e-commerce.”

Ian Peter, pioneer Internet activist and Internet rights advocate, wrote, “Unfortunately, we will have given up on privacy by 2025, or we will have re-interpreted what it means.”

John Mitchell, a self-employed lawyer who focuses on antitrust, copyright, trade associations, and free speech, wrote, “The longer lawmakers delay in creating a privacy rights floor, the greater the profit from data-mining and privacy invasions, and the more likely is lack of privacy to be seen as the norm. The profits, in turn, will allow for greater lobbying influence, in which increasing privacy will be pegged as job-killing and innovation-crushing.”

John Senall, a principal and founder of Mobile First Media, LLC, wrote, “It is likely that many consumers will find the technicalities of getting one’s information protected complicated enough not to bother or be frustrated by the new processes. Fingerprint, retina, and other encryption sign-in and access techniques will continue to be widespread by 2025, and [it will be] the norm.”

Gary Kreps, director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at George Mason University, wrote, “I am optimistic that advances in health information technology and policy will continue to advance the security and utility of these systems for commercial and health promotion activities.”

Jane Vincent, a fellow at the Digital World Research Centre, responded, “In 2025 public norms will probably be different due to greater use of digital technologies in every aspect of life, placing private data in the cloud globally. Immortality of digital identities will be a major issue, and the globalisation of cloud management and different attitudes to data protection and privacy will not have been resolved.”

Stacey Higginbotham, a frequent blogger for GigaOM, commented, “We will get paper tiger regulations that appear to protect individual data, while giving over aggregate data that is not supposed to be personally identifiable; however, that data will be easily tracked back to an individual.”

Stephen Abram, a self-employed consultant with Lighthouse Consulting, Inc., wrote, “We are in for more ‘extreme’ targeting, based on behavioral big data collections and matrices of all of our geo and other tagging systems as a consequence of an evolving digital economy, as well as of using the national security lever to wedge in commercial interests. There will be some ‘sanctuaries’ that protect privacy, but they will be few.”

Charlie Firestone, executive director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, responded, “It is, and will continue to be, an electronic arms race between those who will find ways of using personal information to target products and service to customers/users and those who will find ways of protecting and ‘owning’ personal information on behalf of the user. First, there will be greater awareness of the uses to which one’s private information will be put, and second, there will be better tools to own and/or protect that information.”

Fred Baker, Internet pioneer, longtime leader in the IETF, and Cisco Systems Fellow, responded, “No security system can protect a person who steps outside of protections, people can and will do that… I do expect, however, and long before 2025, that the use of encryption on the Net will expand dramatically… If we must assume continuous and pervasive service-based and crowd-sourced surveillance, and monetization of its results, we must also assume that the information gleaned will be available to anyone that can pay to obtain it. That essentially creates a ‘small town’ dynamic on a global scale—people become more careful about what they reveal, and everybody knows the dirty secrets anyway.”

Bryan Alexander, technology consultant, futurist, and senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, wrote, “Governments, from local to national, want to improve their dataveillance for all kinds of purposes: war fighting, crime detection, taxes, and basic intelligence about economics and the environment. Companies badly want data about customers… Pessimistically, Vint Cerf might be correct in observing that privacy, as we know it, is—was—a historical anomaly, a creation of unusual circumstances in the mid-20th century.”

JD Lasica, social media consultant, online journalist, and blogger, wrote, “A major terrorist event between 2018 and 2025 will further propel us toward greater use of surveillance. Meantime, a smaller subset of the US population will move in the other direction, with people removing themselves from the grid in any way they can.”

Stewart Baker, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson, a Washington law firm, wrote, “Almost everything we are shocked and worried about—including all the things we are saying the government should never do—will be commonplace by 2025. And, it will not really bother us that much. Privacy is the most malleable of expectations.”

Marc Prensky, director of the Global Future Education Foundation and Institute, wrote, “In the future, there will be no privacy of information as we as we now know it and have known it in the past—any data put online will become transparently available to all, despite any and all efforts to prevent this. ‘Transparency’ will replace ‘privacy’ as the social norm and ideal.”

Tom Standage, digital editor for The Economist, wrote, “As with financial regulation, privacy regulation makes progress as a result of regular crises. Technology firms (and security agencies) will repeatedly over-reach and then be brought into line by consumer pressure/boycotts and new regulations. In this way, we will discover where people would like to draw the line when it comes to paying for Internet services using personal data.”

Dan Farber, editor with CBS Interactive, replied, “Unless human nature changes (which it will not), we will not be able to have full trust in whatever privacy infrastructure is developed… As we have seen with the NSA revelation, no data is safe from those who want to access it; however, that does not mean great efforts will not be made to provide more secure privacy. Certainly, Facebook Google, Apple, Amazon, etc., will make every effort to make their customers believe they are trustworthy stewards of privacy.”

Dean Thrasher, founder of Infovark Inc., wrote, “There are compelling technical and financial reasons for making privacy protections as weak as possible.”

Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, responded, “The more work we invest in developing a framework that seems balanced, the more a business can find grey areas, workarounds, and loopholes in good conscience. Young people are more used to a world with cameras everywhere. They spend more time online and identified… What oldsters would have to give up, young people will not miss.”

William Schrader, the co-founder and CEO of PSINet Inc., the first commercial ISP, observed, “A small percentage of the world’s population, perhaps a tiny fraction of 1% of mankind, will attempt to go off-grid or in some way disengage… They must own nothing that is tracked by government, such as real estate or autos, have no utilities in their name, have no bank account, and not earn a living by receiving a check or direct deposit. In short, they would only use cash, not own a phone, not have a tax identification number, etc… These off-grid people will be treated by authorities worldwide as suspect in some way, simply because they choose not to be tracked.”

Lee McKnight, a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Syracuse University, responded, “There will be evident progress by 2025 in building in enhanced privacy and security, cloud to edge. The daily news will still include stories of identity theft, surveillance, and business abuse of privacy rights, but those will be against the backdrop of a refined public sensibility and clearer legal frameworks accepted at international level.”

David Hughes, a retired US Army Colonel who, from 1972, was a pioneer in individual to/from digital telecommunications, responded, “There will be no real or sustained privacy. Every human on this planet can be detected, and any communication to or from him or her can, and will, be monitored.”

David Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center, observed, “The incentives are unequal: There is a strong incentive to enable strong privacy for transactions, but much less for enabling individuals to control their own info. So, of course, I do not actually know how this will shake out. I assume we will accept that humans do stupid things, and we will forgive one another for them. When your walls are paper, that is what you have to do.”

Paul Saffo, managing director at Discern Analytics, wrote, “Americans have happily sacrificed their privacy over the last several decades, and will continue to do so, even as they complain. Privacy has already shifted from being a right to a good that is purchased. Privacy-as-good will continue to advance and become the 2025 norm.”

Barbara Simons, a highly decorated retired IBM computer scientist, former president of the ACM, and current board chair for Verified Voting, responded, “It would help if people would stop saying that privacy is dead—get over it. There is no law of physics that says that it is impossible to have privacy. We can have privacy, if that is what we as a society choose.”

John Markoff, senior writer for the Science section of the New York Times, responded, “We are on our way to the ‘Panopticon’… A decade is an infinite period in terms of Internet time. Too many things are possible, and anything we say today would be largely speculative. I am struck by the fact that there is such a gulf between the European and US privacy norms. I believe this is because of World War II. When the Nazis entered Paris, the first thing they did was head for the phone directory.”

Joe Touch, director of the Information Sciences Institute’s Postel Center at the University of Southern California, replied, “Privacy is in direct opposition to the business models of the largest Internet companies. The Internet does not require a login, birthdate, or username, yet these companies continue to create ‘walled gardens’ that do—to create the information that fuels their revenue stream. Their business models are not simply about advertising—they are about tracking.”

Laural Papworth, a social media educator, replied, “Technology innovators now have an extremely strong customer sector that speaks back. Products that damage fidelity will be destroyed by mass word-of-mouth media before they get too far. Rights will be managed, not because of any ethical behavior, but because not to will be bad for business… The global village will always win against privacy. Privacy was used to divide and separate individuals from each other to weaken them. As we enter back into the village, privacy naturally disappears against convenience and the human need for connection.”

Glenn Edens, a director of research in networking, security, and distributed systems within the Computer Science Laboratory at PARC, a Xerox Company, wrote, “A major overhaul of the architecture of the Internet is required to meet the goals of privacy and the rampant use of personal information by commercial interests. It is not clear that these issues can be resolved by 2025 at our current pace. Technical innovation is outpacing regulators’ ability to act and react. It is not clear what direction public norms about privacy will emerge. There is evidence of change, as well as a lack of interest or education about the issues. Scott McNealy once said that ‘privacy is dead’—in some respects he might have been right.”

Tiffany Shlain, filmmaker, host of the AOL series The Future Starts Here, and founder of The Webby Awards, responded, “In 2025, everything will be transparent. People will not have the illusion of privacy. This will, of course, have consequences.”

Marcel Bullinga, a technology futures speaker, trend watcher, and futurist, wrote, “We have to reinvent the entire Internet as we know it, shifting power from a few American tech companies to the individual who creates, and therefore owns, the data. We need to create a personal dashboard, a safe haven, for every individual’s dossiers, transactions, money, and profiles. In this dashboard, you could set your privacy and communications settings (from 0 to 100%). All of this will create a big struggle about the question: Who owns (my) data? My 2025 statement: In 2025, we will have a post-Facebook and post-Google world. We will have new business models, in which facilitating data is more lucrative than owning data. 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. If we do not make this transition, we face a privacy and fraud nightmare, in which our lives are dominated by a few global tech companies.”

David Ellis, course director for the Department of Communication Studies at York University in Toronto, responded, “By 2025, these trends are likely to be exacerbated by the appification of the Web and the growth of the Internet of Things and the far greater degree of intrusiveness they will enable.”

Mike Caprio, a software engineer for a consulting firm wrote, “People will understand that the only way to keep information truly private is to store it in a non-electronic format in a windowless, locked room in a secret location.”

Jason Hong, an associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, observed, “I expect that in 2025 we will still be having the same discussions about privacy we are having today, but that the challenges have gotten harder due to advances in technology.”

Art Brodsky, a self-employed communications consultant, commented, “Competing interests always produce a less-than-desired result. There will be more ways to invade privacy and more pressures to do so.”

Patrick Larvie, a researcher for a large US-based technology company specializing in the human impacts of technology, wrote, “Increasingly, these decisions will become monetized, so that we know what a ‘Like’ is worth, perhaps in dollars and cents.”

Anita Salem, a design research consultant, wrote, “The public will not realize the power of psychometric data mining and analysis, which will be used by the privileged to shape opinion and influence laws. Public opinion will be tailored almost instantaneously based on aggregate data mining of online activity. Behavior will be more homogenized due to the ability to network cameras and computers to observe and identify aberrant behavior. New technologies and social systems will be established that are counter to this anti-privacy culture, and these hackers may exert a disruptive force.”

Kevin Ryan, a corporate communications and marketing professional, wrote, “We will accept the fact that, legally and practically, we have no privacy. For most, it will not be a big deal. Clandestine networks will be created. People will create homegrown methods of avoiding scrutiny. Most people will come up with avatar aliases to do what they do not want associated to themselves.”

Ebenezer Baldwin Bowles, founder and managing editor of CornDancer.com, wrote, “By 2025, a benumbed, electronically besotted public will have lost the concept of privacy as we understand it today—and already, in 2014, our notions of the concept are debased by propaganda-driven fears of terrorist attacks, online sexual predators, lone gunmen, identity theft, and financial loss. The mantra, ‘What have you got to hide?’ will have become commonplace criticism of anyone who stands against the all-powerful state in matters of privacy versus security.”

Karen Riggs, a professor of media arts at Ohio University, wrote, “A gathering storm is occurring in the realm of employer-employee relations. Among other practices, the bleeding of private Internet and communication technology (ICT usage) into the workplace is transforming the modes and scope of surveillance by employers. In less direct communication, corporate and private hacking (as well as government surveillance) will continue to creep into everyday ICT usage. Privacy protections will be Band-Aid measures. With each correction of technological vulnerability, corrupt influences find a new way to invade the personal sphere.”

Adam Rust, a research director for a US-based organization advocating for economic justice and opportunity, wrote, “There is one significant misunderstanding out there. People seem to fear privacy incursions by the government more than they do those by private companies. It makes no sense, but that seems to be the American paradigm.”

The series of “Digital Life in 2025” reports 

This is the final report in a series. The six previous “Digital Life in 2025” reports released by Pew Research and Elon University in 2014 examined additional questions tied to Internet development over the next decade.

  • A March 2014 Digital Life in 2025 report issued by the Internet Project in association with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center focusing on the Internet’s future more broadly. Some 1,867 experts and stakeholders responded to an open-ended question about the overall future of the Internet by 2025.
  • A May 2014 Digital Life in 2025 report on the Internet of Things from Pew Research and Elon University examining the likely impacts of the Internet of Things and wearable and embedded networked devices. A majority of the more than 1,600 respondents said they expect significant expansion of the Internet of Things, including connected devices, appliances, vehicles, wearables and sensor-laden aspects of the environment.
  • A July 2014 Digital Life report on Threats to the Open Internet from Pew Research and Elon University canvassing a number of experts and other stakeholders on what they see as the major threats to the free flow of information online. A majority of these experts expect the Internet to remain a place where people can freely access and share content, even as they anticipate a number of potential threats to this freedom in the coming years.
  • An August 2014 Digital Life report on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics from Pew Research and Elon University gathered opinions from experts about the roles that robots and many forms of artificial intelligence (AI) – including digital agents that perform programmed tasks – will play in our lives by 2025. The results were an even split, with 52 percent envisioning a future in which robots and digital agents do not displace more jobs than they create and 48 percent saying they will displace significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers.
  • An October 2014 Digital Life report on “Killer Apps in the Gigabit Age” from Pew Research and Elon University about the potential new digital activities and services that will arise as gigabit connectivity—50 to 100 times faster than most Americans now enjoy—comes into communities.
  • A later October 2014 Digital Life report on “Cyber Attacks Likely to Increase” from Pew Research and Elon University looked at experts’ views about the prospects for attacks on nation-states, key utilities and other industries, and on consumers. They expect nations, rogue groups and malicious individuals will step up assaults and 61 percent say they expect a massive attack causing great damage.