November 14, 2013 – Those of us living in democracies on this planet are confronted with the clashing of two realities. The first is our laws that provide us with personal safeguards to preserve our individual freedom. The second is our technological reach through global telecommunications with our personal digital presence everywhere.
Today although there are bills and charters of rights, and personal privacy laws on the books in so many countries, it seems privacy is a thing of the past. Everything we do digitally leaves a trail of bread crumbs for those who seek the bits of data. Mobile communication has become ubiquitous. And with it so have listening posts that can gather every thread of every conversation or transaction undergone on the web.
I do all my banking online as I am sure do many of you, my readers. The banks have made significant investments to ensure that transactions of a commercial nature are secure. And we trust that what they have put in place is effective. But the emails that you and I trade, or the short messages we share over our smartphones, or the web pages we view, or the phone calls we make – all can be scrutinized by those who have the tools and training to intercept the data stream. Add to this the personal information we post about ourselves voluntarily on social media sites like Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn and we have the makings of a treasure trove of data for those same trained data snoops with their bevy of tools.
The recent revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency’s listening in on the private conversations of heads of foreign states is a symptom of technological overreach in the post-9/11 world. Communications technology makes it possible for governments to listen in on citizens. Data storage technology makes it possible to grab zetabytes (that is kilobytes to the 7th degree) and filter it to find “the bad guys.”
In Italy, a democracy, government uses a tool called the Redditometro which tries to find income tax evaders by studying the purchasing habits of its citizens. Every swipe of a credit card, every purchased subscription, mobile phone usage, vacation spending, all are analyzed to determine who is evading taxes. Some describe this new government program as an “act of psychological terrorism.” The Italian government claims that through this program they have uncovered 8,600 tax evaders and $53 billion in undeclared income from both domestic and foreign sources. They further claim that the program analysis shows that 20% of Italian households are suspect tax cheaters.
We are willing victims of the technology we purchase or get free and use. Apps we put on our smartphone can become data collectors for third parties who may have good or bad intent. Those who track their health using a smartphone app (there are at least 50 out there right now) may be unwittingly sharing this information with insurance providers. Cloud computing apps like Gmail, the email system I use, read and tag words and phrases and wrap our inboxes with context-sensitive advertising and promotions. Even this blog which I write using WordPress as the tool is sensitive to context and places advertising appropriate to the messaging of the postings I write.
So here is my question for all of you. Is there a difference between a Google or Microsoft shaping the advertising that wraps around something I write on a Cloud-based web platform because it reads words in context, or a government that uses similar tools to do the same type of data mining but for a different purpose?
We value our privacy in one sense yet at the same time billions of us in the Internet Age are sharing much about ourselves quite openly without much thought about rights. Think about just how much of us we share. Every financial transaction that involves electronics leaves an audit trail. Every bank payment effects our credit status impacting our ability to borrow. How is it possible that an Equifax can know so much about us that it can effect whether we get a mortgage or not? For it is the ubiquitous nature of the Internet Age that is subjecting us voluntarily to prison walls of our own making because we are waiving our right to privacy.
Add to this institutional erosion in our perceptions of democracy. In the United States we see a confrontation between branches of government and political parties that is leading to dysfunction at the federal level. In my city, Toronto, we have urban paralysis because of vacuous and criminal leadership and few means to correct the situation except the periodic election process. Governments like the United States and Italy are perceived as spying on us. Governments are seen as unresponsive to the larger challenges that democracies face like youth joblessness and climate change. Democracies have political parties within parties that appear to be committed to ending the effectiveness of democratic government. Add to this non-government activists focused on issues of relevance to our futures, exerting influence through the reach of worldwide social media.
We have choices to make to ensure we gain the benefits of the Internet Age without losing what we essentially feel should remain private, unassailable by government intrusion. We need to be judicious in allowing technology to be overly intrusive in out lives. We can influence those who create the technology by demanding that information sharing be an agent for improving our lives, not shaping the advertising we are subjected to, or influencing our thinking to meet someone or some party or ideology’s political agenda. Some have proposed that all of us need an electronic servant, an application that negotiates with websites on our behalf and shields us from exposing personal data that we do not want to share. Will that shield us from the probing data sniffers of a National Security Agency or some other body focused on extreme security? Will that ensure that our democracies continue to work on behalf of citizens here in the 21st century? Do we need to rethink how we organize collectively to address global challenges in light of non-state players becoming centers of action and influence approaching that of state actors?
When George Orwell wrote 1984 it was 1944 and his present included Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin where thought shaping was an instrument of statecraft. Big Brother was more than just a figment of Orwell’s imagination. Today we have the NSA and other security players watching all of us ostensibly to protect our democracies from the “bad guys.” But in increasingly dysfunctional governments who is determining the definition of “bad guys?”