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The iPhone X, a marvel of technology and design, heralds the end of privacy as we’ve known it. The implications of the technologies integrated into its small footprint suggest a near future where our lives will be inescapably captured and catalogued in microscopic detail from birth to death. It will not matter whether we own a cell phone, enable tracking or maximize our privacy settings. What makes these technologies so ubiquitously invasive is that they will not require us to carry connected devices, consent to being monitored or actively participate in the process.
The new iPhone X is the centerpiece of Apple's latest technologies and design. It integrates a remarkable range of technologies is a small footprint.
This two-part series will look ahead by first looking back at the technologies that started it all, just a scant two decades ago. It’ll then consider their personal, social and business implications.
How we got here
To understand why privacy is destined to fade, we must appreciate how and how quickly cellular networks, cell phones, GPS and digital cameras have evolved. Credit for the first mobile phone call goes to Motorola’s Martin Cooper, who used a prototype phone to call Dr. Joel Engle at Bell Labs in 1973. Cellular analog networks (1G) were first deployed in Japan (1979) and northern Europe (1981). Deployment in the US was delayed until 1983 by lack of network availability, particularly the deployment of cell towers. The Motorola Dynatac became the first American consumer cell phone when it was introduced in March 1983. It cost nearly four thousand dollars and provided 30 minutes of talk time when fully charged.
Digital networks (2G) began replacing analog cellular networks in the early 1990s. They used circuit-switching technologies that delivered better performance at lower costs. 2G was the bridge between the old analog world and newer, faster, packet switching digital technologies (3G) that entered the market in 2001. 3G networks quickly connected 300 million users worldwide, delivering enough bandwidth (2Mbit/s) to support advanced cell phone services, such as media streaming.
High bandwidth applications and related services began overwhelming 3G cellular networks by 2005. A more efficient technology was desperately needed. WiMAX and LTE provided competing 4G solutions through data-optimization capabilities that increased data rates by a factor of ten. The first commercial LTE network deployments were completed in 2009 in Oslo and Stockholm. Sprint had upgraded much of its networks and released the first 4G-WiMAX cell phone (HTC EVO-4G) in June 2010, but LTE eventually became the defacto 4G technology in the US.
Cell phones made location tracking possible, although by today’s standards, the process was clumsy and inaccurate. 1G and 2G networks tracked cell phones by checking which cell towers they registered with as the user moved. GPS was available on dedicated receivers, but not on early consumer cell phones. Civilian GPS signals were intentionally degraded by the US Department of Defense, so receivers could not accurately pinpoint locations. Then, in 2002, DOD changed its policy and stopped degrading civilian GPS signals, triggering widespread development of consumer GPS products. In 2004, QualCom announced an assisted GPS technology designed for cell phones; by 2010 most cell phones were GPS capable and could be located almost anywhere on earth to within 32 feet.
Digital camera technologies paralleled the development and evolution of cell phones. The earliest consumer color digital cameras appeared in the mid-1990s. They delivered a maximum resolution of 640 by 480 pixels and could store very few images in their limited internal memory. The Apple QuickTake 100, for example, which was released in 1994 with a price under $1,000, could store a whopping eight images in its internal memory. Sensor and memory technologies quickly improved, and cameras began delivering higher resolution, greater color depth and larger internal storage at much lower price points. Today’s 4K cameras capture high resolution images (UHD-1) of 3840 by 2160 pixels, and even greater pixel density will soon become the standard. In September 2015, Cannon announced a new camera with 8K resolution, based on a 120-Megapixel sensor; a 240-megapixel version is reportedly under development that will capture images with finer detail than the human eye can perceive.
An alternative approach to large lenses and single massive image censors was used in Apple’s iPhone 7s. It employs two lenses and sensors to simultaneously capture multiple images of varying resolution, focal length and aperture settings. Computational mathematics are then used to combine the images into single, higher resolution pictures. The benefits of this technology include much smaller, lighter, less expensive camera lenses, sensors and electronics that can fit in small devices, such as cell phones and surveillance cameras.
Cell phones drove the development of tiny, powerful, low power consuming, dedicated microprocessors and memory chips. These quickly migrated to other smart, connected systems, including video surveillance cameras, which use integrated electronics and software to pre-process and compress video and image data before transmission. This strategy reduces network traffic and lowers demands on cloud data storage and analysis systems. The data cloud emerged in part as a response to the exploding storage demands created by digital media. It has become more than just a repository for all things digital. It is now a space where demanding digital processing and analysis are carried out by dedicated, powerful servers running cutting edge software.
By 2015, two years before Apple announced the iPhone 10, all the major components and systems necessary to fundamentally alter the nature of personal privacy were largely in place or under active development. It had taken only twenty years to develop and mature multiple technologies, which together revolutionized how much we capture, analyze and see of the world around us, including our private lives. Part two of this series will delve into specific applications, improving security and surveillance technologies, and their implications for our concepts of privacy.