An emerging field called collective intelligence could create an Orwellian future on a level that Big Brother could only dream of, reports the New York Times. Harrison Brown, an 18-year-old freshman majoring in mathematics at MIT, didn’t need to do complex calculations to figure out he liked this deal: In exchange for letting researchers track his every move, he receives a free smart phone. Now, when he dials another student, researchers know. When he sends an eMail or text message, they also know. When he listens to music, they know the song. Every moment he has his Windows Mobile smart phone with him, they know where he is, and who’s nearby. Brown and about 100 other students living in MIT’s Random Hall have agreed to swap their privacy for smart phones that generate digital trails to be beamed to a central computer. Beyond individual actions, the devices capture a moving picture of the dorm’s social network. The students’ information is but a bubble in a vast sea of digital information being recorded by an ever-thicker web of sensors, from phones to GPS units to the tags in office ID badges, that capture our movements and interactions. Coupled with information already gathered from sources such as web surfing and credit cards, the data are the basis for what is known as "collective intelligence." Propelled by new technologies and the internet’s steady incursion into every nook and cranny of life, collective intelligence offers powerful capabilities, from improving the efficiency of advertising to giving community groups new ways to organize. But even its practitioners acknowledge that, if misused, collective intelligence tools raise serious privacy concerns. Collective intelligence could make it possible for insurance companies, for example, to use behavioral data to covertly identify people suffering from a particular disease and deny them insurance coverage. Similarly, the government or law-enforcement agencies could identify members of a protest group by tracking social networks revealed by the new technology. "There are so many uses for this technology–from marketing to war fighting–that I can’t imagine it not pervading our lives in just the next few years," says Steve Steinberg, a computer scientist who works for an investment firm in New York…

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