As we move closer to tracking everything in business, IT will become evermore central and politically powerful in business everywhere. So, yes, IT will become the masters of the universe. Perhaps that’s the only good side of what is a worrying future.
In just a couple of decades we’ve gone from a world where the idea of being covertly watched and tracked was unthinkable to one where cameras monitor our every move on every corner and in every public building, where being easily located by the signals from our cell phones and car radios is simple, and where potentially every product we buy will be labeled and trackable.
Behind these trends is the commercial demand to improve supply-line efficiency and reduce theft combined with the need of governments to keep us safe and secure in a world where the potential for terrorism, everyday crime and commercial crime are greater than ever.
But behind these apparently logical reasons for tracking and monitoring are other less-reasonable and indeed less-rational motivations and tactics that are a real threat to our privacy, our rights and how we do business.
Recently, the Electronic Frontier Foundation discovered that the U.S. Secret Service made a deal with a number of color laser printer manufacturers that have tracking information called “forensic watermarking” encoded on every sheet of paper printed. The ostensible reason for this is to fight counterfeiting, but obviously there is far more potential in this technology.
That followed the agreement by Adobe, Jasc and other software companies to incorporate government code in their software to detect and prevent loading and modification of images of money (see No can scan).
What amazes me is that these companies would, in effect, roll over and comply with something that can hardly be considered to be supportive of good product engineering.
Maybe the feds applied some serious pressure. Or maybe management in these companies is not bothered by the social and technical issues involved and will do anything for a buck. So far, no one is saying much, but eventually an insider is going to spill the beans. Yep, Printergate may be waiting in the wings.
There’s an even more worrying issue about the consequences of tracking of goods and people at the most detailed level: It is creating a neurotic drive to know and control everything. It also raises the question of whether, because you can track everything, you should.
For example, European Union regulators are pushing hard to make the total and complete control of supply chains the responsibility of manufacturers. In a recent bout with Philip Morris International, the EU fined the company $1.25 billion for “gray marketers” selling PMI’s products. The EU’s motivation for this is that cigarettes that wind up being diverted to the gray market result in lost tax revenue. According to the World Health Organization, these distribution “leaks” cost governments at the local and national levels in excess of $30 billion per year.
But along with the fine the EU regulators made it clear that they expect PMI to be able to track individual packs of cigarettes from production through to retail sale.
The implications are staggering, because the same logic can be applied to pharmaceuticals, raw materials such as steel and cement, and pretty much anything commercial. If the EU pushes such regulations into law, then other governments worldwide that are hungry for cash will follow suit.
I said the implications are staggering and here’s why: If supply chains will in the future have to, by law, capture data down at the level we’re talking about, the data management issues involved will be, well, – I’m running out of superlatives – really, really colossal.
They will dwarf today’s data handling by orders of magnitude and, along with this, IT organizations will have to expand phenomenally, which in turn will require organizations everywhere to increase IT budgets dramatically.
Remember when I wrote a few weeks ago that there is nothing but IT (see The truth about IT)? Well, as we move closer to tracking everything in business, IT will become evermore central and politically powerful in business everywhere. So, yes, IT will become the masters of the universe. Perhaps that’s the only good side of what is a worrying future.
Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.