Friday, January 3, 2014

Trying to have a 21st century conversation about privacy on 20th century terms

Lots of folks are wanting to excuse what Edward Snowden did because the results of his leaking of classified information has started what they think is a productive conversation about privacy. Please excuse me if I don't agree. What we're having is a conversation about privacy based on what we assumed it was during the last century - not today.

Let me provide you with a bit of background for that conclusion. First of all, from Al Giordano:
The democratization of public or semi-public exhibitionism has thrown traditional concerns about “personal privacy” out the window. Who needs the CIA anymore when everybody is out there blurting the kinds of secrets it used to take surveillance to discover? Privacy didn’t disappear because Big Brother took it away. We gave it away! Freely! It fell aside to a greater impulse: the need to expose ourselves in public, to have an audience, and to keep it.
Seriously, how often do you read something on your facebook timeline or twitter feed and cringe in reaction at TMI (too much information)!!!!!! We're living in an era when exhibitionism has taken precedence over privacy. The therapist in me is extremely curious about the roots of all that. But whatever the source, the reality is that we're all desperate these days to be heard.

The tool that is facilitating that exhibitionism is the internet - in all its various forms. And behind the scenes there are critical questions remaining about how it will be used. On that front, Dan Conover has written the best article I've seen yet. He starts out by saying that individual pieces of data are not the concern.
Collecting information is easy, traditional, and essentially inconsequential. Connecting information, however, is the radical act that will either empower or destroy us...

The NSA's email metadata campaign is designed to efficiently collect and then discard information. Not because the NSA is a civic-minded agency that wants to protect our theoretical privacy, but because your personal email isn't the target of the fucking machine. Your mundane metadata is the shit that NSA machine operators have to shovel in order to find covert organizations.
If we really want to have a conversation about what privacy means in the 21st century, here's what we should be talking about:
Google knows where you are, what you search for, what you bought. It knows what porn you stream, what political rhetoric you consume, and -- through G+ -- it can compare that knowledge to your social graph. Facebook is doing the same thing, in increasingly annoying ways. Target uses informatics and inference, based on massive data sets compiled from your shopping and mine, to spot women who've just learned that they're pregnant, and to send those women special offers and coupons for expectant mothers... 
Today we're worried about an NSA program that looks big and scary, but really isn't . But the day is coming when corporate control over our information will produce a civil liberties crisis that will make our NSA worries look quaint by comparison That day will come because that day must come, because in the same way that atomic fission was neither good nor bad, smart, unregulated, authoritative networks are neither good nor bad. 
The problem with humans isn't that we're inheriently good or bad, it's that eventually some greedy asshole turns everything we learn into a weapon... 
I am convinced that connected information is ultimately going to be a boon to humanity, and that it's entirely within our power to write rules for the collection, use and control of the "public" information we all contribute to the commons. But to prevent that power from turning on us, we simply must start a conversation that relates to the actual threats, conveyed in the context of their actual potential for abuse.
That's what a conversation about privacy looks like in the 21st century. The new exhibitionism we have embraced on the internet just might be approaching the crossroads of a decision about whether it becomes a "boon to humanity" or a weapon. Engage that one!


  1. Most people are really blind to what kind of information is out there already on each individual unless you live in the woods someplace without any kind of communications. I just shake my head at the ignorance of some people who really should know better.
    Happy New Year Smartypants.

  2. Can't tell you how often I refuse to discuss private matters only to be sneered at as not being 'forthcoming' or some such. We believe in privacy for only ourselves and not for anyone else. I know what Bush did - in 2003 my organization had a private email hacked about which I received a totally deceptive phone call demanding info from someone claiming to be a 'reporter' for NBC. I checked. Said person was UNKNOWN to NBC at national or state level. From there a whole lot of worrisome interactions with FBI ensued. The ACLU and other human rights/civil rights groups worked for and GOT much needed civil rights restorations. Today we are NOT being hacked or followed or anything unless there is probable cause AND WARRANTS. But if I go online to find sheets and pillowcases - I cannot get rid of the PRIVATE tracking of my search. I'm NOT being followed by the government - I'm being stalked by Bed, Bath & Beyond. THAT bothers me a great deal even if I entered into the search voluntarily. We need to be able to safeguard our privacy, but I'm much happier with the LEGAL protections we have against the government than we did and at the sheer inability to be private just because we need new towels.

  3. It is pretty amazing that I can go on-line at Amazon or Macy's, looking for something -- then for the next month every time I go on-line I see ads for that item. I was appalled when the original Patriot Act was being enacted, wrote letters to Feinstein and others at the time. There are more controls in the system now then there were after 911, but we have long since lost the battle of electronic privacy. No one should have any expectation of privacy with electronic communications.

    1. Agreed. It's like the people who scream about red-light cameras. A person runs a red light endangering others then holler their "privacy" was affected? Yikes. But if I don't wish to discuss something with someone and they claim I'm 'repressed' or 'hiding something' it makes such a lie of the entire issue. I do not fear this administration, but we DO have to change the laws of paranoia that followed 9/11 for sure because the NEXT president might not be so careful, and there must be LAWS that restrain him or her. That said, it wasn't Snowden who brought this to light - it was people such as you, sweetnonnie. YOU rock. Snowden doesn't.