The ubiquity of digital gadgets and sensors, the pervasiveness of networks and the benefits of sharing very personal information through social media have led some to argue that privacy as a social norm is changing and becoming an outmoded concept. In a seven-part series Don Tapscott questions this view arguing that we each need a personal privacy strategy. This post is Part Six of that series. For previous articles go here.
George Orwell's iconic text Nineteen Eighty Four described the dystopian society where a totalitarian state rules in its own interests and everyone is under constant surveillance by authorities. "Big Brother is watching you" became the rallying call for privacy advocates around the world.
Today Orwell's "telescreens" have been replaced by ubiquitous, ambient networked computing where billions and soon trillions of devices connected to networks collect real-time data. True, in the developed world governments are not totalitarian, but many advocates of personal "openness" are naïve -- assuming that governments are benevolent and will act in the interests of their citizens.
Fascism, Stalinism, McCarthyism, and the myriad repressive and totalitarian states of the last decades and today should remind us that our personal data can be used against us. Listen to Pete Seeger's "Knock on the Door" ("here they come to take one more") for a reminder. And today in the name of national security, governments are collecting real time information from us, sampling phone calls, emails, social networks, and taking our biometrics at airports and a growing list of other places.
I was reminded of the dangers recently when meeting Ron Deibert, Director of the Citizen Lab that monitors and fights against government attempts to use the Internet against its citizens. The meeting was cut short because he had a situation to deal with. The Syrian Government had created a "phantom Facebook" and was using that to harvest names and personal data of dissidents, presumably so that they could hunt them down and kill them.
"But this could never happen here" you say? We actually have very little idea exactly what governments are doing with the flood of personal information about us. And the aftermath of 9/11 should remind us just how quickly our civil liberties can be undermined in the name of national security. Everywhere in democratic societies governments are campaigning to intrude into our private lives to collect more information. In the UK the "Intercept Modernisation Plan" would permit authorities to intercept every form of online communication, all in aid of vague goals of fighting crime.
Recently the New York Times reported that "Law enforcement tracking of cellphones, once the province mainly of federal agents, has become a powerful and widely used surveillance tool for local police officials, with hundreds of departments, large and small, often using it aggressively with little or no court oversight."
The Times reports that this practice has become big business for cellphone companies, too, as carriers market a catalog of "surveillance fees" to police departments to determine a suspect's location, trace phone calls and texts or provide other services.
Sure, you could argue that it's becoming difficult to restrict the information that governments can collect and yes of course we need to be vigilant about how that information should be used. But we still need to resist attempts of governments to collect unnecessary information. We still need to fight for the basic privacy principle of "data minimization" -- of limiting the information collected to clearly definable and socially helpful purposes.
There should be no tapping of phones or anything else without due process. If a government agency proposes to set up video camera in your neighborhood, you need to decide if the benefits of possible crime reduction outweigh the possible dangers of unknown governments being able to watch you constantly.
Or increasingly, governments want to collect biometrics information about you -- like fingerprints, retinal scans and even DNA. We each need to make choices. Sometimes this benefits you with better government services or faster movement through airports. But what are the long term implications should a government agency or individual become malevolent? The average person must be cautious and vigilant and even resist the collection of unnecessary personal information.
To me, it's not so likely the future will not look like Orwell's 1984 or Jeremy Bentham's panopticon prison, or an east bloc police state during the Cold War. Those are metaphors from another era that depended upon a single, all-knowing malevolent power seeking control. The more appropriate metaphor for the growing loss of privacy today is found in Frank Kafka's The Trial where the central character awaits trial and judgment from an inscrutable bureaucracy for a crime that he is not told about, using evidence that is never revealed to him, in a process that is equally random and inscrutable. In likewise manner, we, too will be judged and sentenced in our absentia by unknown public and private bureaucracies having access to our personal data. We will be the targets of social engineering, decisions and discrimination and we will never really know what or why.
If history is any guide, advances in privacy have tended to arise in the wake of widespread privacy abuses, for example, the negative effects of mass printing presses, the emergence of the fascist state, the abuses of credit reporting companies in the 1960s. Something similar may be happening today with data breaches and identity theft "in the cloud," as more and more people come to understand the pain and consequences of personal data misuse.
Next up: "Corporate Secrecy and Personal Privacy are Opposites"
Don Tapscott is the author of 14 books about technology in business and society, most recently with Anthony D. Williams "Macrowikinomics." He discusses these ideas on twitter @dtapscott