The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Nature of Technology

Three simple words convey my esteemed interest in patent law – I love technology. How can you not? No matter what you do in this world you encounter and employ technology hundreds of times per day. Today, the word is commonly associated with connotations of super computers, robots, and other things instilling visions of a chrome-enveloped, futuristic nature. Still, technology does not just refer to the many devices upon which you can watch videos on YouTube and Netflix. If you’ve ever used a fork then you’ve derived a benefit from technology. Ever taken medicine? Lived in something that could be considered a “dwelling,” other than a cave? Technology, like culture, is a process whose growth is correlated with our civilization’s collective knowledge. Age old wonders such as the wheel, irrigation, printable type, and more still lend us their daily assistance one way or another. I’ll stop with the adages, but only because you probably get the point.

No offense to those ages of old, I’m sure that they were enjoyable in their own right, but I am so happy that I live in a time when we have a worldwide internetwork of computers and space travel. I’m quite appreciative of our ancestors’ technological achievements, but it’s impossible for me to fathom not being able to do things like watch the Red Wings live (hey, we had one heck of a series against the Sharks). Bravo, humanity – we have done well for ourselves. In particular I fancy computers and anything else that is capable of similar functionality. We live in a time when video chat is not relegated to the Jetson’s futuristic cartoon world, when we can program intelligence into circuit boards that can beat even the best champions in games of logic and strategy. If you could bring your digital music collection back a few hundred years in time, no one would have any clue as to how you were summoning those lyrics and beats and you would most likely be burned for being a warlock/witch. Don’t worry though… we don’t live in the era of time travel… yet.

Although technology is inherently great, it is merely a character we portray in the puppet show of life. In the hands of law abiding citizens it serves constructive, progressive purpose; however, in the wrong hands it can be a tool of societal undoing.

One considering misappropriated use of computing technology most likely would first think of hackers and their code-breaking syndicates. Hacking is probably the most commonly thought of action serving computer-based detriment (i.e. substantially lacking in societal value), followed closely by identity theft. Still, I want to take this time to talk about computers used as instruments for committing acts of invasion of privacy.

Invasion of privacy refers to situations in which there exists an illegal and unwelcome intrusion into one’s private life by another who lacks just cause for so doing. Modern tort law’s privacy laws protect a non-public figure’s rights against intrusion into their personal affairs, public disclosure of sensitive and embarrassing private information, having falsities entangled in one’s reputation, and misappropriation of one’s name or image for either personal or commercial advantage. Privacy laws also have some historical backing in the First and Fourth Amendments of the US Constitution. Privacy rights exist in the home just as they also do on the Internet superhighway. One major related set of laws in regards to invasion of privacy by means of technology is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, codified in 18 USC §§ 2510 et seq (the Federal Wiretap Act) and 2701 et seq (the Stored Communications Act) – check this website out for more details. For a background on Internet privacy, click on this link instead.

Whether done by a government actor or a fellow citizen, invading another person’s privacy is a big no-no. It’s disturbing to think about the spying potential created by our civilization’s worldwide digital connection, but it’s even worse to hear about specific instances of such conduct. You’ve all no doubt heard of 2010’s Lower Merion School scandal, where students were given laptops by their school district, which subsequently utilized those computers’ webcams in order to observe their students at school and home (read more about it here). You may not have heard about the more recent series of incidents performed by the large furniture rental company, Aaron’s, which [allegedly] spied into its customers’ homes through the rented computers’ webcams. A Wyoming couple who had rented one such device from said company discovered this serious and unnoticed private invasion when they came into possession of a photograph of themselves taken by the rental retailer. The claim is that Aaron’s had taken this picture of them using the laptop after the couple failed to make a payment on the rental (as it really turns out the couple had properly sent in that payment, but due to an accounting error of sorts on Aaron’s end the record of that payment was never made; to see more on that story check out this article). Imagine being handed a close-up photo of yourself taken from within your own home. Now THAT’S scary. For the record, Lower Merion School District settled the two lawsuits filed against it for $610,000 total, and the Wyoming couple is currently seeking others to join its class action suit against Aaron’s.

I understand and agree with the commercial policy of stores shutting off customer access to their rented computers from remote locations, but taking pictures of people using those machines is going too far. If that isn’t an invasion of privacy, nothing is. Technology users have so much to be thankful for, but by consciously behaving in such a depraved manner these men and women are actually setting us back. Maybe they aren’t prohibiting us from filing patents for the latest and greatest (or just plain-old curious) things such as Apple’s recently published patent application for a keyboard that blows air so as to obviate user contact, but these actions present many more preclusions relating to trust and security.

Notwithstanding these issues, I believe that we are constantly pressing forward on the right (maybe left) path towards an Internet utopia. Between our laws against technological circumvention and protections regarding subpoenaing Internet Service Providers for a list of the sick and twisted things we search for on Google, we are making our cyber lives a little bit brighter with every mistake fixed and every disaster prevented. Continued reform is always a necessity, as we will never run out of things to reconsider and laws to reapportion and restructure. Nevertheless, we’ve created a bright digital world for ourselves. Be a good person and don’t use it for evil – otherwise Anonymous might shut down your Inter-life (I know Sony [probably] isn’t illegally watching its consumers’ private lives invasively, but I really wanted to throw something in this post about everyone’s favorite league of hackers).

Thanks for reading – by the way, I love those new curtains you just put up in your bedroom!

About Keith Schonberger

By day, Keith is an aspiring patent attorney with two or more opinions on everything. By night, he's a caped crusader/rock star. It's an awesome life.
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