every breath you take

I have a confession to make. One of my guilty pleasures is set in a dystopia where an omniscient artificial intelligence watches everyone, everywhere, and knows when they’re going to do bad things. This isn’t Minority Report or part of the Terminator franchise, although this AI is pretty close to how we imagine Skynet might have started out– it’s the TV show “Person of Interest”. And instead of finding the thought of 24/7 surveillance frightening, fans of PoI are just thrilled that the Machine recognizes an assistant admin (Reese) and will talk to him, because we really want Admin (Finch) to keep helping people…and we don’t want anything bad to happen to the Machine, either.
Talk about suspension of disbelief.
I don’t like CCTV cameras. I’m not convinced that they stop crime or solve crime, and I have a real problem with ubiquitous surveillance. There’s a kind of privacy that comes from being an anonymous person in a crowd, going about your daily business. But if everyplace you go has a CCTV camera, or your cell phone broadcasts your location, or you show up in a picture posted online and someone tags you in that picture– there goes your anonymity. I don’t like the possibility that I’m being tracked everywhere I go, that there’s footage of me on some CCTV camera feed somewhere. Digital storage space has become so prevalent and so cheap that it’s now quite feasible for that footage to be stored indefinitely– along with every trace of every single place I go and every single action I take online.
I’ve been mulling over this threat to privacy for a good long while. I really enjoy the internet, I absolutely love boingboing and wikipedia and  archive of our own. There are a lot of wonderful things out there. But it’s also a frontier, and it has some really scary implications. One of them is that the internet is a surveillance state. Don’t take my word for it; Bruce Schneier knows a lot more about the subject than I do and says it better:

Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, and whether we like it or not, we’re being tracked all the time. Google tracks us, both on its pages and on other pages it has access to. Facebook does the same; it even tracks non-Facebook users. Apple tracks us on our iPhones and iPads. One reporter used a tool called Collusion to track who was tracking him; 105 companies tracked his Internet use during one 36-hour period…This is ubiquitous surveillance: All of us being watched, all the time, and that data being stored forever. This is what a surveillance state looks like, and it’s efficient beyond the wildest dreams of George Orwell…Welcome to a world where Google knows exactly what sort of porn you all like, and more about your interests than your spouse does. Welcome to a world where your cell phone company knows exactly where you are all the time. Welcome to the end of private conversations, because increasingly your conversations are conducted by e-mail, text, or social networking sites.

Given the state of things, how long will it be before our current understanding of privacy is meaningless? Either the word will have some incredibly narrow meaning, or it will become one of those dead euphemisms (the ones that fool precisely nobody and are laughable in their obviousness, like “I need to powder my nose”), or our descendents will have to look the word up in the OED to find out what it used to mean.
The American Library Association says “Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association” on its page about privacy and confidentiality. The first person ALA quotes is Louis Brandeis. The second person ALA quotes is Bruce Schneier:

For if we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness. We become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that—either now or in the uncertain future—patterns we leave behind will be brought back to implicate us, by whatever authority has now become focused upon our once-private and innocent acts. We lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.

This is the dark side of social media. When people post to Facebook, when they Tweet, when they upload pictures to Tumblr– they’re sharing a lot more data than they know. That data isn’t ephemeral, anonymous, or untraceable. Some of us are careful, but many of us aren’t. All it takes is one mistake, and you’ve given someone two or three data points to collate and identify you with. Maybe there won’t be negative consequences– maybe you’ll just end up having to block some random guy on Google+– but maybe you’ll be in the same boat as David Patraeus, Chinese dissidents, and Syrian rebels.


One thought on “every breath you take

  1. mcnabbarchives

    You raise some really good points here. Yes, use of social media means ubiquitous surveillance- and we should be very cautious about our use. In the early days of social media, I was at an age where I was less stringent about things I posted, and there are probably still a few inebriated-teenager photos of myself floating around. In recent years I’ve become more careful and I think of social media use in terms of reputation management. I try to be pretty calculating about what I post, where I post it, and who has access to it. I remain outspoken about my politics and my identities, though, and I’m sure I’ve been passed over for jobs because of that. (Which is illegal of course- but impossible to prove)


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