Saturday, June 30, 2012

Diminishing Privacy

Technology destroys privacy
Technology is quickly eliminating privacy. From the iPhone that tracks your every move to the ubiquitous security cameras, it is getting harder and harder to lead an anonymous life free from prying eyes. Governments want to eliminate privacy so they can maintain power. Corporations want to do away with privacy so they can maximize their profits. Some may not mind this loss of privacy. They may even think that if you have nothing to hide why be concerned. But that's like saying if you have a nice looking body with no cellulite why wear clothes.

For governments its a control issue. maintaining and increasing power is the natural disposition of any ruler. The more controlling and paranoid the ruler the less privacy its citizens enjoy. One example of a breach of privacy caused by paranoia is the break in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters that was eventually traced back to staff members of president Richard M. Nixon. Totalitarian regimes like China, Iran or North Korea tend to allow their citizens very little privacy, and for good reason. These regimes create so many enemies that they would likely be toppled without keeping a close eye on everyone and nipping any opposition movements in the bud. Some regimes like the Nazi's went to the extreme of encouraging people to inform on their neighbors and even children to inform on their parents. In our modern technological world, this hardly seems necessary anymore.

Today, for a government of any country with decent internet penetration, large volumes of information are readily available. Where as in times past collecting, storing and accessing information about citizens was slow and cumbersome requiring much administration and even file space, nowadays enormous dossiers on every netizen can be collected and stored cheaply and compactly on computer disks. Now if you're a really ambitious ruler you can also canvas all your cities with video cameras like Britain. Couple this with facial recognition software and the transponder that almost everyone carries around with them everywhere they go (cell phone) and big brother is practically automated.

Because of terrorism and crime, people are so fearful they gladly hand over their privacy and freedom to feel just a little safer.They prefer being filmed on CCTV 24 hours a day to being mugged in a dark alley. They will stand in line for hours, remove their shoes and let screeners see their naked bodies in the backscatter image just to feel a little safer about flying. Whether they are any safer as a result is a whole other debate.

As far reaching as this might seem government has nothing on corporations when it comes to diminishing privacy. Google for example gathers huge amounts of data by tracking your searches. Some social networking sites like Facebook track your internet activity even after you've logged out. Credit card card companies track your purchases. Microsoft and other software companies gather data on your usage of their software. To make matters worse these databases are often combined and then sold, sometimes to unscrupulous entities or worse they are hacked and fall into the hands of criminals.

The intention of these companies seems innocent enough at first. Its usually to find out what products or services you will buy and then put ads in you inbox, mailbox or web page. Is this annoying? Sometimes. Is it evil?  Not really. However, sometimes erroneous inferences are made about you because the information being tracked is wrong or incorrect extrapolations are being made. Usually this simply results in products you have no interest in being offered to you, but sometimes it can result in big problems for the individual ranging from an undeservedly bad credit score to wrongful incarceration. This later problem can result when police or government agencies get a hold of the information and human error causes them to think X, Y & Z because you bought A,B & C.

Some feel that this loss of privacy is good, that its progressive and will unite humanity. They believe that if there's no privacy, people will be less likely to do bad things since everyone will know about it. While this may be true for some, its obvious that many of the people who commit crimes are sufficiently dimwitted enough to miss that point. How many times have we heard about people committing crimes and posting YouTube videos of it or talking about it on Facebook. Sure, this usually gets them locked up, but it didn't stop the crime and after they get out they're likely to just pick up where they left off.

The ubiquity of technology has made it very difficult to opt out of this system. Teachers post homework assignments on Facebook, which requires an account to access. Jobs are generally posted on line not in the paper, which requires an online resume. You usually can't reserve a hotel or rent a car without a credit card.  Its not impossible to avoid ending up in one of these dossier databases, but it is impractical.

Even our homes and yards are now visible through online satellite photos and Google street view. Great, now everyone world wide can see the weeds in my yard. Isn't it just a little creepy that with a few Google searches anyone can see where you live, what you do, how old you are, etc.

Technology has expanded our choices in many ways. We have hundreds of cable channels. Stores are filled with an unprecedented variety of products. Via the internet we can choose to be friends with thousands of people on any continent. However, one choice that seems to be disappearing rapidly is the choice to live a quite, private life where only the people we want to know us, do.

No comments:

Post a Comment