Privacy: Sold For A Shiny Gadget

Bruce Schneier, perhaps the foremost authority on internet privacy, has sad bad news.  It’s gone. The internet is now officially a surveillance state, and the shame is that we gave it away. From CNN :

The Internet is a surveillance state. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, and whether we like it or not, we’re being tracked all the time. Google tracks us, both on its pages and on other pages it has access to. Facebook does the same; it even tracks non-Facebook users. Apple tracks us on our iPhones and iPads. One reporter used a tool called Collusion to track who was tracking him; 105 companies tracked his Internet use during one 36-hour period.

We’re staring down an apparent dilemma.

Increasingly, what we do on the Internet is being combined with other data about us. Unmasking Broadwell’s identity involved correlating her Internet activity with her hotel stays. Everything we do now involves computers, and computers produce data as a natural by-product. Everything is now being saved and correlated, and many big-data companies make money by building up intimate profiles of our lives from a variety of sources.

Facebook, for example, correlates your online behavior with your purchasing habits offline. And there’s more. There’s location data from your cell phone, there’s a record of your movements from closed-circuit TVs.

This is ubiquitous surveillance : All of us being watched, all the time, and that data being stored forever. This is what a surveillance state looks like, and it’s efficient beyond the wildest dreams of George Orwell.

We love computers. We love what computers have done for our lives. Whether it’s watching Youtube, chatting it up with our virtual pals or finding a pair of shoes, the computer is integral to our existence.  And as Schneier tells us, the computer knows everything about us.  We’ve told the computer everything about us when we let Facebook (or whatever your favorite may be) into our lives. 

And in return, we got some new shoes, a friend named Joe327 and hours of laughing at kitteh videos.

Was it worth the trade?  Society has responded with a resounding YES!!!  Most of us have known for quite a while that we’re leaving behind footprints that tell anyone interested in knowing all about us, yet continue to use the internet with abandon. We may have no real grasp of how all this technology works, but we know we’ve sacrificed our privacy for the convenience and fun of shiny gadgets.

To their credit, some technology companies  have refused the government’s efforts to hand over our deepest secrets upon demand. But it’s not exactly a foolproof method of protecting privacy, as businesses have other concerns than keeping our privacy ours.

This isn’t something the free market can fix. We consumers have no choice in the matter. All the major companies that provide us with Internet services are interested in tracking us. Visit a website and it will almost certainly know who you are; there are lots of ways to be tracked without cookies. Cellphone companies routinely undo the web’s privacy protection.

Fixing this requires strong government will, but they’re just as punch-drunk on data as the corporations. Slap-on-the-wrist fines notwithstanding, no one is agitating for better privacy laws.

Strong government will? The last thing the government wants is our privacy to be left intact. It makes law enforcement so much harder, when the total loss of privacy allows unfettered access to whatever information makes their case.

So, we’re done. Welcome to a world where Google knows exactly what sort of porn you all like, and more about your interests than your spouse does. Welcome to a world where your cell phone company knows exactly where you are all the time. Welcome to the end of private conversations, because increasingly your conversations are conducted by e-mail, text, or social networking sites.

And welcome to a world where all of this, and everything else that you do or is done on a computer, is saved, correlated, studied, passed around from company to company without your knowledge or consent; and where the government accesses it at will without a warrant.

Welcome to an Internet without privacy, and we’ve ended up here with hardly a fight.

Schneier doesn’t write this to make us feel bad, or stupid. He writes this because we’ve allowed ourselves to be screwed without putting up a fight.  This is a challenge to every computer user, emailer, kitten video lover, to stop giving our privacy away for free.

We’re done, but only for the moment.  We can become undone if computer users (read: everyone) stop enjoying the miracles of modern technology long enough to give a damn about modern reality.  Rather than vote for the politician who want to protect your guns or take them away, protect a women’s right to chose or outlaw abortions, protect a scientific education that isn’t dictated by someone’s bible, we can start demanding that our elected officials start protecting our privacy from our government.  We still get to vote, you know.

Schneier nails down two immutable facts: first, we are now a computer based society, and they are pervasive in our lives. This isn’t going away.  Second, technology knows everything about us.

We are still at the infancy of technology, and can still change the path we’ve gone down that offers up every aspect of our privacy for the pleasure of internet convenience.  The death of privacy and the joy of technology do not have to co-exist.  We’ve allowed it to happen because we were so transfixed by shiny gadgets that we couldn’t divert our eyes long enough to see the consequences.

But we have a long future ahead of us, and computers will be a part of it.  Unless you have no problem with the government knowing what porn you’re pulling up on Google when no one else is around, you better start caring about this issue and acting on it.  We do not have to give up privacy for the internet. We are not yet done.