On a clear day this past May, Cody Wilson stood at a firing range just south of Austin, Texas. The BBC crew he’d invited stood a few feet away as the 25-year-old University of Texas law student adjusted his earplugs and sized up his target—a mound of dirt off in the distance. He raised a small handgun, pulled the trigger, and a .380 caliber shot rang out, kicking up a cloud of dust. The pistol Wilson held was made of black-and-white plastic and looked like a cheap children’s toy. What had drawn the BBC was that the gun, which Wilson dubbed the “Liberator,” had been created with an $8,000 3-D printer bought used on eBay. A self-described “techno-anarchist,” Wilson is on a quest to prove that new technology is rapidly changing what we can hope to regulate—from information and ideas to physical objects. The proof is that anyone with an Internet connection, a computer, and a 3-D printer can now manufacture a gun.
Yesterday was Google I/O, the tech giant’s annual developer conference. It’s where Google thinkers, technology journalists, and the genius programmers who make it all possible commune and geek out over the pixelated (and actual) buffet that awaits. It’s also the poor man’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), the annual Apple event made famous by way of Steve Jobs’ puckish, turtleneck-clad theatrics, which left the whole world slavering for the newest iThing. But Steve is gone, as are his trademark presentation pyrotechnics. Google I/O, pushing incremental updates to Maps like it’s the second coming, is what we're left with.
In 1984, CompuServe launched the first “Electronic Mall,” a Pleistocene-era Amazon with which owners of a TRS-80 personal computer could browse and buy goods over the Internet. Such modern retailers as “The Record Emporium” and “The Book Bazaar” were given prominent virtual storefronts. A full page ad in the May 1984 issue of Online Today boasted, “By the year 2000, the world may catch up with the way CompuServe’s new Electronic Mall lets you shop today.” The world took less time to catch up than that: By 1995, eBay and Amazon had been incorporated; in Amazon’s first two months as an online bookstore, it averaged $20,000 per week in sales. Americans would go on to spend around $700 million online in 1996, and by 1999 sales had grown to $20 billion. Figures released earlier this year by the Commerce Department revealed that Americans spent $225 billion online in 2012—a 400 percent increase in only a decade.
Every day, without even knowing it, you share intimate personal details about your life with people you’ve never met. The medical symptoms you search online follow you; first to the pharmacy where you pick up a prescription, then to a database of specialists looking to add you as a patient, or to an insurance company creating a risk pool. The car you’ve researched on the web has been broadcast to your local dealerships before you’ve even left the house. When you walk in the door, the salesman already knows which color you want—as well as your salary and driving history—and pulls the shiny new car of your dreams around front.
Americans worship privacy, railing when our favorite websites alter their terms of service to collect just a bit more information about us. Yet from the moment you swipe your rewards card at CVS, to the surveys you fill out, to the websites you shop and social networks you update, there are companies you don’t even know exist—often referred to as “data brokers”—watching, taking notes, and connecting the dots between the virtual you and the real one, using sophisticated technology to create vast and detailed personal profiles of hundreds of millions of American consumers. These databases are available to law enforcement and welfare agencies, to marketers, to banks and insurance companies, to employers looking for background information on their employees, to anyone with a credit card. There is no one watching the data brokers, no one verifying the information they hold and sell is accurate. Worse, there is no way for you to know what their dossiers contain about you, and no easy way to remove yourself from the databases of the hundreds of companies regularly engaged in buying and selling your personal details.
“We have a completely unfettered market in the sale of personal information,” says Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the ACLU and an expert on data brokers. “It’s like the wild, wild West out there to buy Social Security numbers, names, my preferences, the magazines I subscribe to, the places I go to online, my tax records, the amount of money I make, my medical issues.”