December 2, 2020

Wireless Tracking of Everything

Arnold Kling at The Bottom Line points to upcoming technologies that allow the attachment of tiny tags, which can be tracked wirelessly, to almost anything. He writes:

In my view, which owes much to David Brin, we should be encouraging the use of [these tags], while making sure that no single agency or elite has a monopoly on the ability to engage in tracking. Brin’s view is that tracking ability needs to be symmetric. We need to be able to keep track of politicians, government officials, and corporate executives. The danger is living in a society where one side can track but not be tracked.

Kling’s vision is of a world where nearly every object emits a kind of radio beacon identifying itself, and where these beacons are freely observable, allowing any person or device to take a census of the objects around it. It’s easy to see how this might be useful. Whether it is wise is another question entirely (which I’ll leave aside for now).

One thing is for sure: this vision is wildly implausible. Yes, tracking technology is practical, and may be inevitable. But tracking technology will evolve quickly to make Kling’s vision impossible.

First-generation tracking technolgy works by broadcasting a simple beacon, detectable by anyone, saying something like, “Device #67532712 is here.” If that were the end of the technological story, Kling might be right.

Like all technologies, tracking tags will evolve rapidly. Later generations won’t be so open. A tag might broadcast its identity in encrypted form, so that only authorized devices can track it. It might “lurk,” staying quiet until an authorized device sends it a wakeup signal. It might gossip with other tags across encrypted channels. Rather than being a passive identity tag, it will be an active agent, doing whatever it is programmed to do.

Once this happens, economics will determine what can be tracked by whom. It will be cheap and easy to put a tag into almost anything, but tracking the tag will be impossible without getting a cryptographic secret key that only the owner of the object, or the distributor of the beacon, can provide. And this key will be provided only if doing so is in the interest of the provider.

It’s interesting to contemplate what kinds of products and services will develop in such a world. The one thing that seems pretty certain is that it won’t be the simple, open world that Kling envisions.