As Valentine's Day nears, those of us who still have an empty dance card for the big day may be wondering who out there is in the same predicament? And, more aptly, who among those lonely hearts might make a decent date? Imagine that there was a web tool that could answer that very question. Imagine that we could open up a web browser and type "find me a date for Valentine's" like a Google search and instantly be given a catalog of candidate dates for V-day.
Does this Hackers-meets-The Matchmaker scenario sound too far-fetched to be believed? It is true that no client assistance tool with that kind of sophistication is currently available. But, if the reports about a new technology created by Raytheon are right, such a tool may be just around the corner.
Reporters at The Guardian were the first to break the story on RIOT, Raytheon's Rapid Information Overlay Technology that uses web content from social media sites to monitor what people have done, what they are currently doing, and what they may do in the future. The company claims that the software was developed for purposes of cybersecurity and an early version was apparently shared with the U.S. government in 2010. Yet the potential uses of a tool that can reassemble the fractured bits of our cyberselves and make actionable knowledge out of it are legion, from uses as innocuous as online dating to uses as nefarious as espionage in the cloud.
In a chilling video demonstration of RIOT's functionality, the project's lead investigator, Brian Urch, shows how the tool could be used to determine when one of the company's employees was most likely to be at the gym. "We know where Nick's going, we know what Nick looks like. Now we want to try to predict where he may be in the future."
RIOT is already raising alarms that this big data analytics tool is going to become an instrument of Big Brother. Officially, Raytheon has not sold the technology to any person or institution, to date. However, this fact has not relieved fears among many web users and civil liberties advocates of an imminent Orwellian nightmare.
The threat of privacy in the era of big data is not a concern that RIOT invented. But, as perhaps the most advanced cybersurveillance technology that has yet been devised, it may compel us to speedily address a number of tough questions. In many ways the questions RIOT raises are much like the ones U.S. politicians are grappling with over gun control in the wake of the shootings at Newtown. Namely, what regulatory measures should the government take in response to new technologies that will respect individual liberty while safeguarding the public against avoidable harms? How can we ensure that powerful new technologies are used to serve the public good and kept out of the hands of those with malevolent intent?
As useful a tool as RIOT could be, until the uncertainties about the privacy of our Internet identities are resolved, it will be one more reason to think twice when using the web.