Today is October 21, 2015. This is the date that Marty McFly travelled thirty years into the future to visit in the popular “Back to the Future” series of movies.
When fictional dates in the future finally roll around, it’s natural to stop and ask “what did they get right?” and with something as fun as Back to the Future its all the more natural. After all, much of what they showed seemed both fun and plausible when the movies came out.
Since the future is now, what did they get right about today? And what does it mean from a security and privacy point of view.
There are two things that the movies predicted fairly accurately: the “smart home” and the use of biometrics.
When Marty finds himself in the future in 2015, he sees that his future self and family live in a home with voice-activated future, smart gadgets. Since the family lives in what’s now a run-down neighborhood, it implies that this house is the “low end” of the 2015 “smart house.”
In reality, we’re on the cusp of seeing “smart home” technology become pervasive and accessible like we see in the films. But the other thing that we’re seeing and understanding, which the films didn’t show us, is how potentially dangerous networking your home can be. We see attacks against smart home devices like refrigerators that are already using them to send spam and be part of the broader problem of compromised systems and devices on the Internet. In the 1980s we had no clue what risks the “smart home” might face; in 2015 we have only an inkling of those risks as we start to see it become a reality.
The use of biometrics is more of a reality today. When the police find 1985-Jennifer, Marty’s girlfriend, unconscious in an alley, they’re able to positively identify her using her fingerprint. 2015-Jennifer is still alive and so presumably the source of the fingerprint on file for the police.
No, the police aren’t using fingerprints to identify vagrants. But today we are seeing broad use of facial recognition software to help identify known criminals and terrorists. And unspoken behind the police’s ability to identify Jennifer is the fact that there had to be a large database holding all this biometric information. When the film came out, that fact wasn’t noticed or talked about. Today, it’s arguably the chief concern around biometrics, especially when used by the police.
Back to the Future wasn’t ever meant to be a thoughtful prediction of the future. It was a series of fun movies that played well with the idea of time travel. But it did get some things right about today. And the things it did get right highlight the very things we are most excited about and concerned about in our own near future.
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