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The Virtual Big Brother

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Since Orwell wrote about "Big Brother" in the book 1984, people from across the political spectrum have had a general agreement that we should be allowed to live our daily lives without being tracked and monitored by the government. Thanks to a dramatic shift in technological innovation, the government can easily track, monitor and surveil its citizens.

This innovation has also enabled corporations to build surprising consumer profiles about individual consumers. For example, Target can predict when a woman is pregnant, while allegedly credit card companies can predict divorces up to two years before they happen with a stunning 95% accuracy.

Privacy rights have been steadily eroding for some time, but with the advent of social media we are watching them disappear at a faster clip. In recent months, reports have surfaced that some companies have requested social media passwords from prospective employees. Apparently, receiving rejection notices and collection bills for months on end isn't humiliating enough and now we must give up the keys to our private IM conversations, political viewpoints, vacation photos, and comments from friends before we have the privilege of a paycheck. Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has denounced the practice, reminding HR managers that it is against Facebook privacy policies to share passwords. Maryland recently passed legislation banning the practice - I've submitted a similar bill in the Maine Legislature, as well.

Last fall, Facebook launched its "frictionless sharing" which shares information about what you are reading even if you didn't intend to. The FBI is using social media to track what they see as security threats, and Law enforcement agencies are even monitoring protesters and building cases against them despite the First Amendment's guarantee of both free speech and the right to peaceably assemble. "Domestic drones" may soon be patrolling the streets here in the U.S.

The nexus of governmental Big Brother and corporate Big Brother have combined to create an environment where we are expected to give up our Constitutional rights when we apply them in a virtual world. A key example comes from New York where tweets from Occupy protester Malcolm Harris are mired in a Constitutional debate. A judge blocked Mr. Harris from requesting a search warrant for his Twitter account information because his tweets were public and therefore did not belong to him anymore.

To its credit, Twitter stepped in to fight the prosecutor's subpoena declaring that their own privacy policy clearly states that copyrights from tweets remain the property of the tweeter. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a champion of digital freedom, recently speculated "The real reason NYC prosecutors wanted this information was to get location data that would give the government information about the workings of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its members. That explains why Harris was singled out: he had over 1,500 followers, 7,200 tweets and was outspoken about his involvement in the Occupy movement."

If this speculation proves accurate, it could have a remarkably chilling effect on free speech everywhere. If I'm simply following Mr. Harris' tweets, does that then mean the government will begin to monitor not only my tweets, but my location when I send those tweets?

Just a few weeks ago, President Obama signed an executive order to stop supporters of Iran and Syria from using technology to suppress their people, saying "Technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to oppress them."

Oh, the irony.

Sadly, the traditional "Big Brother" narrative is being replaced with a "Why Bother?" narrative. The monitoring, tracking and even surveillance is so ubiquitous that most people don't even realize it is happening. If they do, there are few solutions being presented, and it truly begs the question, "What can I do about it?"

While debates continue between regulators, online privacy advocates, and private companies, and until legislation is passed to protect our online rights, we look to some of the solutions currently in the marketplace. I applaud Time Magazine for publishing a recent article with eight ideas for protecting privacy online. Unless you're a techie, there is little coverage about online privacy tools by mainstream media. Time listed several online privacy tools including Cocoon -- which I've been using on my laptop and iPad - and Tor which keeps you anonymous online, but is not available for iOS devices.

It is time consumers were empowered to make their own decisions about what information goes to whom and under which circumstances. While the title should have been 2012, the predictions of Mr. Orwell are ringing truer by the day.

Who knew that Big Brother would show up as a "friend" you "liked?"

Diane Russell is a Maine state lawmaker and was chosen by The Nation magazine as "most valuable state representative" in its 2011 Progressive Honor Roll. You can follow her online @MissWrite.

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