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Did You Remember to Take Your Password This Morning?

By the time that most people begin to ponder the implications stemming from soon to become available technologies, these devices have already become dated and staid to those whose job it is to guarantee that the technological race does not slow. Thus, even as we fret about the privacy implications of Google Glass (even more on Glass) or the safety implications of self-driving cars, the next innovations are becoming visible on the digital frontier. Wearable tech may be the “next big thing,” but what comes next?

It seems that some are forecasting that the steps after wearable tech will be, on the one hand wearable in a much more imbedded manner, and perhaps even ingestible. Indeed, such new steps move from us wearing/carrying technology to technology wearing us. Granted, these prototypes (and they are prototypes) boast little of the impressive functionality of Glass or a new smartphone (yet), but they are intended not as technologies with which we must constantly interact but rather as technologies that lurk in the background facilitating our usage of other technologies. Indeed, it seems that the main thing they’re meant for – in current form – is to help with the hassle of remembering passwords.

Regina Dugan, formerly of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which is part of the US Department of Defense, is now a leading figure in Motorola’s advanced research department. It is important to note that Motorola is actually two companies: Motorola Solutions and Motorola Mobility. This is worth recognizing because Motorola Mobility (despite still being called Motorola) is actually owned by Google. And thus Dugan may work for Motorola, but she also works for Google.

At the recent D11 conference Dugan revealed two projects that she, and her team, have been working on of late, and these projects are made clear by the title of Doug Aamoth’s article on the conference (at Time) “Motorola Is Working On a Password Pill for Once-Daily Authentication – Oh, and a Tattoo, Too.” Before discussing the implications or workings of either, Aamoth begins by frontloading his article with a brief discussion of people’s password woes: we have too many and we can’t remember them, or they’re just no good. Thus the mental ground has been ploughed so that the seed of Dugan’s solution will seem sensible. Aamoth addresses Neil Postman’s first question for technology, but doesn’t bother asking the rest.

The “tattoo,” which is not (at least not yet) truly implanted in the wearer’s skin (think of it a little like a temporary tattoo or a sturdy bandaid), would function in much the same way as a “keyfob,” with the main difference being that it would be on your skin instead of in your pocket/bag. Thus people would be freed from the arduous task of having to take out a keychain. While the pill according to Dugan, as quoted by Aamoth:

“has a small chip inside of it with a switch. It also has what amounts to an inside-out potato battery. When you swallow it, the acids in your stomach serve as the electrolyte and power it up. And the switch goes on and off, and it creates an 18-bit ECG-like signal in your body and essentially your entire body becomes your authentication token.”

And lest people become too concerned about the prospect of these pills – a bottle of which is not about to come with your next smart phone upgrade (at least not yet) – consider that the pills have already been approved by the FDA. Which, when you stop to objectively ponder it, is actually rather impressive. Indeed, there is an FDA approved pill that would authenticate you as you whenever you pick up your smartphone. Recall, the division of Motorola behind this is owned by Google, and thus this is the perfect pill to allow to log into all of your Google owned accounts (Gmail, YouTube, etc…) simply by picking up a phone. Again, this is objectively impressive, and the FDA approval can make one wonder why a Google executive would still feel the need for a new country for innovation, but I digress…

Password pills and tattoos are yet further devices that promise to increase our freedom through technology. No longer will we be burdened with remembering which password to use for which site, we will be the password, and thus we are liberated from having to keep track of such details. Certainly there is an aspect of this that has to do with security, for many people use only a single password or a password that is quite poor (such as “password”). Yet, as we contemplate a techno-pill popping future perhaps we should pause and wonder if having to recall passwords is actually not that significant a burden. It can be a bother to keep track of them all (certainly) yet whatever freedom is gained by no longer having to remember is more than overshadowed by the loss of freedom entailed in having to take a daily pill (or get a tattoo) in order to use our devices. The pills themselves may be non-addictive, but you’ll have to take them for your tech addiction.

In our modern technological society there is a degree to which we are nearly forced to keep up to at least some extent with technological shifts. Try applying for a job or going to college or getting a job without having an e-mail address (which is incumbent upon some type of Internet access), try communicating whilst only having a land-line (ie no cell phone). Technology does not so much provide new freedom so much as it creates a new societal landscape in which technology becomes the default way of participating and then these new ways of participating are classified as freedom. It is as Jacques Ellul noted in his book The Technological Society:

“To be in technical equilibrium, man cannot live by any but the technical reality, and he cannot escape from the social aspect of things which technique designs for him.” (Ellul, 224)

Passwords operate by introducing an important level of friction between us and our devices. The moments where you must enter a password (be it to access your email, a code you must enter to use your smartphone, and so forth) are times where we become on some level cognizant of a decision to interact with and make use of technology, and when we forget a password we are further forced to recall that we are not our devices. Pills and tattoos would smooth over this friction, and this is likely the very point of such new gizmos.

Precious seconds where data could be gathered about you are lost when you must pause to remember your password, and those seconds must be erased. What these so-called innovations represent is the further integration of humanity and the machine. Do the pills and tattoos really make the devices easier for us to use, or do they make us easier to be used by the devices? The seeming absurdity of the notion of popping a password pill may make this tempting to dismiss (it is a great target for satire as the site Stop the Cyborgs recognized many months before Dugan’s press conference), yet the FDA approval is no joke, and not long ago Google Glass and self driving cars seemed far fetched as well.

There are important privacy concerns that run parallel with the idea of password pills and authentication tattoos, as frequently it is precisely by not logging in with our passwords that some small amount of anonymity remains online. Once a person ingests a password pill will they be a constant “authentication token” as they navigate the digital realm? Will all of their site visits and interactions now bear their personal authentication trail? Surely they will no longer need to log in at each site, but will this also mean that the site will not need them to actively log in to allow it to know exactly who is there? Or, to restate, is this password pill about making our technological interactions easier for us, or is it about making our digital footprints easier to track for the hounds of big data?

In the aftermath of recent revelations regarding the major telecoms and government spying one can certainly ponder new worries about whether being constantly “authenticated” in your interactions with devices will just make you easier to track. Indeed any amount of freedom coming from these devices promises to be easily overshadowed by the potential loss of privacy. Indeed, the only thing that these pills and tattoos set free is us from our responsibility to remember. Or, to quote Jacques Ellul again:

“When man himself becomes a machine, he attains to the marvelous freedom of unconsciousness, the freedom of the machine itself…man feels himself to be responsible, but he is not. He does not feel himself an object, but he is.” (Ellul, 226)

But the question to ask before we begin popping password pills is: an object for whom?

Books Cited:

Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Vintage, 1964.

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

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