March 20, 2009

Our Privacy Wasn’t Taken. We Gave It Away.

Filed under: Other,Sci/Tech — PolitiCalypso @ 10:08 pm

For several years, the government and private businesses have been increasingly invasive of personal privacy, giving regular people fewer ways to avoid the eye of Big Brother without dropping off the grid entirely and living in a cabin a la the Unabomber and other hardcore Luddites. Things came to a head during the years of the Bush administration, which of course ran an illegal spying operation on the entire American public, conducted through the phone companies and Internet providers, most of which were all too happy to comply. The Democratic Congress later gave this repulsive program the official sanction of the law, effectively rewriting FISA to give the executive branch unparalleled authority to order such spying, and also giving immunity to the companies that broke the law. But at the time that massive domestic spying was being presented openly as anti-terrorism policy, polls revealed some astonishing—and utterly disgusting, in the opinion of this civil libertarian and First and Fourth Amendment near-absolutist—results. Substantial percentages of Americans actually thought that “the First Amendment went too far” and bore revision. A majority would rather have the government tell them they were secure from the terror threat (and such meaningless assurances are all that could ever be provided, of course, unless the government has developed time traveling technology and can see that no attacks occur in the future) than be assured by enforceable law that they could conduct private conversations with other people across any medium. This domestic spying policy was being debated when I was an undergraduate in college, and the college newspaper regularly ran op-eds by students—students!—apparently so terrified of the possibility that terrorists might decide to nuke the appropriately named Starkville, MS, that they said they were willing to let the government see their personal correspondences if it might prevent that. “I have nothing to hide from them, so they can see everything if they want to.” That was the phrase of the day, a statement that also contained a subtext of terrorism accusation towards those civil libertarians who opposed Big Brother.

Although technically among the very oldest members of Generation Y, I went to college mostly with members of Generation X, and that generation is much less libertarian than mine. I recognize that the era of irrational post-terrorism paranoia also influenced how many people thought. However, the seeds for this invasion of privacy were sown for years before, and they continue to be sown now.

The private sector has long gathered data on people for the purposes of marketing. They keep records of what we buy, when we buy it, and, as much as possible, what kinds of people we are. Demographic data. Marketing is now a “science” and people can go to college to learn how to gather and use personal buying data most effectively for the corporate bottom line. The Internet is even worse in terms of being a data gold mine; it is of course possible for companies to use cookies to gather data, as well as require users to sign away all rights just to use a given service. Those privacy agreements all too often give the provider the right to sell every piece of data you provide. Individually targeted advertising, once a pipe dream, is now an achievable goal for big business, and it is only because of consumer organizations that it has not yet been perfected.

Radio frequency ID chipping of products, which the private sector has pushed for several years now, would be the death knell of consumer privacy. I recall an article, which I cannot find anymore, of several years back, touting RFID as a marvelous thing, painting a picture of a day not too far in the future in which your RFID fridge could scan its shelves, determine that you are low on particular products that you normally keep around, and place an automatic order with Wal-Mart or the grocery store on your credit card for the replacements. It could even query a database and place small orders for products that its software determined you might like. I do not think I am a control freak to feel chills down my back at contemplating this dystopian scenario, especially in a time when it is now proven to be absolutely imperative that consumers have individual control over what they buy. But the person presenting it thought it was a wonderful idea. I wonder if he still does. Is the “Depression of 2007-201_,” of all things, going to be what prevents such horrible ideas from becoming reality? Maybe the ends really do justify the means.

I am about as far from being a Luddite as one could be. I am wowed by gadgets, and I’m a software developer, for heaven’s sake. I write a blog, have a personal website displaying a variety of creative content that I have produced over a number of years (roughly a decade), and keep a Facebook account (though I don’t do much with it). There is nothing inherently wrong with technology from a civil libertarian perspective, and it does not have to be invasive of one’s privacy. However, I fear that several generations—mine and those that follow mine—are becoming used to freely giving away all the personal privacy that they still have by means of Web 2.0 and social networking technologies. I fear the ultimate, long-term consequences of this.

As I said, I have a Facebook account. I do not, however, post to it every time I use the bathroom. I don’t update my “feed” every time my mood changes. I don’t assume that anyone else is interested in whether I am shaken about driving back from somewhere and encountering a reckless driver, as long as I did not actually have a wreck. I assume as well that no one on the Internet really wants to know if I am having, say, menstrual cramps. I don’t really feel the need to upload photos of myself and others daily.

I don’t feel the need to share with all my “friends” (a disgraceful and demeaning abuse of the word, in my opinion) or everyone in my Facebook networks what is the emotional status of my relationship with someone. I have little use for public feuds. If I’m mad at a friend (a real friend, not just someone I once knew well who acknowledges that past by adding me to their Facebook “address book”), it’s between us, not every person who happens to be in my address book. If that period of anger resulted in that person’s no longer being a friend, then I would talk about it with other friends, not the whole world. If I want to have a conversation with a particular person, I do it in a private medium, not over a Facebook wall. It’s no one else’s business.

In all honesty, I post little information to Facebook, in comparison with many—mainly articles that I found interesting, posts from this blog that are already on the Internet and therefore are public, and major life events that are also not private anyway, such as getting a job. That’s fine. I am an introvert and a pretty strong one at that. Not everyone will be as private and quiet as I am. Many more people are extroverted; they are social, talkative, and comfortable around other people. But it is not extroversion to have no respect for one’s personal life. So many people, an increasing number, have so little concept of privacy that they post personal, intimate information on a website just as a matter of habit—and wonder why others are revolted by what they post (there is even an Internet acronym for it, “TMI,” for “too much information”), or more commonly, why someone else does not share every detail of his or her life as well. There is resentment: “You share nothing while I share every time I get indigestion!” While not universal, this mentality certainly pervades social networking sites, and “microblogging” tools such as Twitter and the Facebook status updater encourage it. (“Why aren’t you on Twitter yet?” [Unsaid subtext: “Do you have something to hide or are you just afraid that no one will ‘follow’ your feed, making you look like a social leper?”]) There the text box is, empty, inviting you to type something into it even if you have nothing to say that the public needs to hear. Everyone else on your friends listaddress book posts, and if you fall behind the crowd, you fear provoking worries from those who are used to seeing multiple updates a day on your private life, or you fear something that is even worse in the social networking world&#8212being forgotten and irrelevant. That fear is so strong that you will post information that is, well, irrelevant to the public, to avoid that fate. It would be harmless human silliness if not for the dangerous effects upon your respect for privacy.

This mentality also is all too common on amateur (and sometimes professional, though less often) creative sites and online communities. Budding artists post sketchy preliminary work and unfinished copies of what will be the final version, giving the entire Internet the opportunity to watch a creative work take shape. Certainly it’s a good idea to obtain constructive criticism of a piece while flaws can still easily be fixed, but the Internet is not really the place for that. It’s far better to have a personal relationship with an individual or two who know the area very well and can offer expert critiques. This trend of some artists and writers posting every version of their work on public spaces reeks of narcissism to me, to be perfectly blunt. If so, it is right in line with the common social networking mentality of posting every (formerly) private detail of one’s life online.

The real problem with all this is a matter of politics. People who have no boundaries between public and private will not object to others who wish to take advantage of it. Currently we are governed by an administration that, although its record so far on civil liberties is not perfect, does seem to respect the privacy and presumption of innocence of the people. What might be the consequences of the modern online free-for-all if another authoritarian-inclined administration gained power? We’re seeing entire generations grow up thinking that it is a good idea to inform the public when they take a shower and what their physical and mental sensations were during that shower. Privacy is being relinquished willingly and gleefully by the public rather than being seized against public will by Big Brother. Eventually the current civil libertarian privacy advocates, many of whom are middle-aged and older, will die or become too old to be actively involved in the fight. Who will be there to defend people’s privacy if privacy has become an obsolete concept?

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