A couple of recent events have gotten me thinking about privacy. More specifically, it’s the lack of privacy that has captured my attention. The web has now been ubiquitous for the better part of a decade. Companies earn staggering sums of money making the web an awesome experience for us. And they have, most adults I know have at least 3 devices with constant internet access. The nasty down side is that everything we do online is traceable. You would be surprised by how little data is required to uniquely identify a person, but that’s no problem because our devices betray quite a bit about us.
None of this is new, the fact that companies and the NSA track our activities has been known for 10 years or more. The two things that have struck me recently are that more companies are joining this bandwagon, and there is no way to opt out.
It’s impossible to opt out of this tracking. None of us are immune from this privacy invasion. If you surf the web, if you have a cell phone, then you are sharing data about your habits and interests with companies and the government. Google & Facebook know you individually, whether or not you have an account with those services. Google’s free analytics service is used on half of the top million domains, and Facebook’s like or share buttons are present on more than 13 million websites. If you do have an account with those companies, they know a lot more about you, but don’t be fooled, they know your habits either way. The only way to avoid them is to not use the phone or surf the web.
We also have no control over what happens with this data about us. Major cell phone carriers are sharing the content, not just meta data but the actual conversations, with the NSA. There are reports from reputable journalists indicating that up to 50 companies are willingly supplying customer data to government agencies. The net effect is that the NSA collects nearly everything you do online, without user consent or a warrant.
Those are examples of the companies complying, but something this valuable is definitely a target for theft. Consider the Ashley Madison breach, last month hackers stole then released the full Ashley Madison database, including personal details. Whether or not you like the site or agree with its business model, enough data was shared about its customers that all of them are now susceptible to identity fraud. Think about that. Names, email addresses, credit card info, transaction data. These breaches aren’t limited to anonymous criminals though, the NSA is all to happy to steal data as well. They’ve stolen data in bulk from Google, Yahoo, Facebook and AT&T that we know of. Again, this is without the consent of the companies or a warrant.
Apart from the personal intrusion, though, how can you have a true democracy when everyone is being watched? We need to be free to explore and express ideas, to argue and debate, without concern for third party misinterpretation or intervention. Privacy is a means to democracy. We currently do not have this freedom, at least not via phone, email or social network. I know of at least two websites that have been forcibly shut down, secure email provider Lavabit and the social legal site Groklaw. I don’t know anything about why these sites shut down other than what’s in the news, but I somehow doubt that the owners of either website feel very free. I do know that Groklaw was a community where open source software advocates and attorneys collaborated to help one another. These heavy handed tactics discourage civic participation and sharing of ideas.
The American public deserves to know what its leaders and government are up to, both at home and abroad. Citizens cannot consent to the importance or effectiveness of any program they don’t know about. There is inherent value in citizens knowing their government’s activities and being able to form judgments about public policy. I do understand that in global politics governments need to spy on one another. That the government do this to its own people and then try to cover it up damages the relationship between citizens and their government.
I find it absolutely chilling that companies and governments have colluded to eradicate our privacy. The private sector figured out how profitable it is to offer free services and sell data about us, and the government figured out how to capture that data and use it for their own purposes. The result is that a lot of people I’ve never met and have no reason to trust know my interests, habits, background, and what I look like. They know these things about you, too. And none of us have any voice in what they choose to do with that information. It’s horrifying.
I don’t know that its possible to fully protect ourselves from this, but there are some things we can do to protect ourselves. I’ll share those ideas in a separate post.