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Apr 27 2011

The vanishing of privacy

While I tend to be scathing about the general vacuity of the mainstream media in the US, there are a few reporters whose investigative work is excellent. One of them is Dana Priest of the Washington Post. I had been meaning to draw attention to her excellent series on the way that the government monitors people.

One key point that emerges from her story is that all you have to do is just one thing, however innocent and innocuous, that is deemed to be suspicious by any authority for you to be placed on a watch list that results in all your personal data and all your actions accumulated in the data banks for investigators to peruse.

Glenn Greenwald points out the dangers of this and the way that it contrasts with the government insisting that everything it does is secret.

That’s the mindset of the U.S. Government: everything it does of any significance can and should be shielded from public view; anyone who shines light on what it does is an Enemy who must be destroyed; but nothing you do should be beyond its monitoring and storing eyes. And what’s most remarkable about this — though, given the full-scale bipartisan consensus over it, not surprising — is how eagerly submissive much of the citizenry is to this imbalance. Many Americans plead with their Government in unison: we demand that you know everything about us but that you keep us ignorant about what you do and punish those who reveal it to us. Often, this kind of oppressive Surveillance State has to be forcibly imposed on a resistant citizenry, but much of the frightened American citizenry — led by most transparency-hating media figures — has been trained with an endless stream of fear-mongering to demand that they be subjected to more and more of it.

Of all the surveillance state abuses, one of the most egregious has to be the Government’s warrantless, oversight-less seizure of the laptops and other electronic equipment of American citizens at the border, whereby they not only store the contents of those devices but sometimes keep the seized items indefinitely. That practice is becoming increasingly common, aimed at people who have done nothing more than dissent from government policy; I intend to have more on that soon. If American citizens don’t object to the permanent seizure and copying of their laptops and cellphones without any warrants or judicial oversight, what would they ever object to?

Recent news reports reveal that Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android phones track and record your every move even when the location detection option is turned off and to serve marketers.

All these developments have caused some alarm amongst privacy advocates but I suspect that most people will not care. After all, people now voluntarily give out their private information on social network sites, information that those sites can harvest and sell to marketers and pass on to governments. People seem to either take the attitude that if you are doing nothing wrong then you should have nothing to worry about or have resigned themselves to the idea that the government and private companies can gain access to information about our private lives to a degree that would have been unimaginable just a couple of decades ago.

Are we past the point of no return when it comes to personal privacy? I suspect so. We have to live with the fact that anything we do is in principle knowable by others.

Is there a real danger to this loss of privacy? Yes. In addition to enabling companies to try and manipulate us, there is an special danger from governments. What governments fear most is when people start sharing dangerous ideas about democracy and freedom and human rights and start organizing around those subversive concepts. Getting wind of those things early and neutralizing key people enables government to control its populations which is why historically governments have depended on informants and spies and detection devices to monitor their own people. What the new technology has done is enable this to be done more easily.

On the other hand, human ingenuity should not be underestimated. People will find ways to use the same technology to get around the snooping. WikiLeaks, for example, has pioneered ways of getting information out that was not possible before. Also the sheer volume of information that is transmitted suggests that it can drown the signals in massive noise, even with sophisticated packet sniffing software that can look for keywords. The catch with all those devices is that if you narrow the search fields you might miss things while if you broaden it you get swamped.

And finally, technology and force can only take you so far. When enough people are united around a common ideal and rise up in unison, even the most repressive and technologically advanced governments will fall.

1 comment

  1. 1
    Mat

    The government is getting more and more involved in are life it will be sad to see them control the internet to.

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