Ubiquitous mapping, Wi-Fi snooping and Web tracking using browser cookies; these technologies mean that it’s not a question of if we’re being observed, but when and by whom.
Caught With Our Digital Pants Down
Recently, Google got entangled in a media firestorm for two separate violations of privacy. In one instance, the search giant agreed to abide by the security settings of the Safari web browser and not put any cookies (uniquely identifying data) on users’ machines when in fact they did just that. In a separate case, Google’s mapping vehicles didn’t just snap pictures of the buildings and terrain they surveyed, but also observed and stored Wi-Fi data from personal and corporate networks.
Privacy is evolving for a number of reasons, primarily because there is an entirely new realm of objects that provoke questions of privacy, including cell phones, Internet communications of all kinds, and data stored not on our own personal hard drives, but in “the cloud” of distributed, Internet-based data storage. New issues of privacy emerge because of our massively enhanced ability to observe and glean information from vast seas of data or masses of people walking down the street. Our desire for security in an age marred by terrorism also pushes up against the boundaries of privacy and what can reasonably be expected to remain private.
Feels Like Privacy
Many of the problems of privacy we encounter today derive from misconceptions, often at a gut level, about what is and isn’t private. Much of the time, browsing the Internet from inside our homes, there is an intuitive sense that what we are doing is private. And on social networks like Facebook, we “share” with our “friends” in the same way we might have whispered to one another on the playground as children.
Although this is the way privacy feels, the reality is far different. Without specific countermeasures, everything we do on the web is public, or at least has the potential to become public without much effort (as Google’s mapping vehicles demonstrated). Short of listening to the legion of security experts and privacy advocates, there’s no immediate feedback that tells you that when you’re on the Internet, you’re actually in public — thus the illusion of Internet privacy lives on, maybe forever, or perhaps until a very rude awakening in the form of hacked accounts or unexpected disclosures of information believed private.
The Small Town Effect
Moving away to college in a large city, I heard a story so common it nearly became a cliché. When inquiring about classmates’ hometowns and high schools, many characterized them as “like a small town,” by which they meant that everyone knew everyone else’s business: a Bad Thing. If small town life precludes much privacy, then how was it for our ancient ancestors, living in tribes of a hundred or less? Surely they enjoyed (or suffered) the smallest “town” of all and consequently, even less privacy. If this historical perspective is accurate, our expectation of privacy merely by living among strangers is a new one.
And sure enough, even living in crowded dormitories of my alma mater, the people who sought privacy got left alone. Then a couple of years later I moved into an apartment and knew only a handful of people living just yards away, speaking to them almost not at all. It wasn’t that we didn’t like each other. For the most part, we got along fine. At least for me personally, it was more a sense of having individual pursuits that devoured much of the time or energy I might have had for neighborliness. These days, suburbia is no different. Right now, each member of my family is attending to a different screen. It feels secure to roll up into one’s own bubble this way, even as I am well aware of the interpersonal costs.
Could Privacy be a Problem?
Beyond the costs to social cohesion, could privacy itself be a problem? Science Fiction writer David Brin wrote in his book The Transparent Society [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] of the positive benefits of curtailing privacy, or at least extending surveillance as long as surveillance powers are available to all, not just some political or corporate elite.
As initially outlandish as Brin’s thesis may seem to the privacy-phile, the ubiquity of cameras in the hands of the public has been a blessing, at least to some. Police are finding it a lot harder to be corrupt when surrounded by a ring of iPhones all set to record video and audio streaming directly to the Internet. How much wrongdoing can be caught or prevented with surveillance of the type Brin advocates, and would it be worth the nagging realization that we’re all on camera nearly every moment we’re outside of our homes?
Surrendering Privacy for Fun and Profit
Today you can already trade some privacy for money, or at least a steep discount. At least one auto insurance company in the U.S. is already offering discounts to drivers who agree to have their driving monitored by a small device attached to the car.
Researchers have done experiments that seek to test subjects’ willingness to sell their privacy for cash. Most subjects make strict distinctions between information they know can be used against them (social security numbers, for example) and are unwilling to sell at any price, but are willing to let social and shopping data go for very little money.
While privacy sellers may not value their data very much, there are buyers who do. The vast majority of “free” services we use every day on the web, such as social media and free web-based email, are funded by targeted advertising — and the “targeted” part requires good data which is collected with our consent (for those of us that read the fine print of user agreements) but without much reflection.
In the end, privacy isn’t what it used to be (and historically, it never was). For most of us not willing to encrypt and obfuscate the data we generate daily online and out in the real world, David Brin’s vision of ubiquitous surveillance draws closer, except for the fact that most of the observation is done not by governments or citizens, but by corporations. Unless we’re happy with this future, privacy in the digital age will need to be negotiated, defined and ultimately enforced by law.