The data that NSA was gathering could be used by the government to track down the activities of specific individuals, but the cost of doing so is high enough that the government must restrict it to a few people. For the rest of us, it will never be touched. What is not so obvious is that a far greater detail about our personal activities are being used by the web advertising industry every single moment. Almost every time you visit a website, you are being tracked, and this information is then used for marketing purposes and determines the advertisements that you see when you are on the web. While your personal records may be ignored by the government, commercial entities cannot afford to do so because there is money to be made.
Are these two facts, NSA’s tapping of our conversations and web ad-exchange’s recording and exploitation of our web-browsing data, unrelated? Not at all. They are both derived from the same technological changes that make it incredibly easy to track and steal personal information. With most of our social activities happening over electronic channels, and many of it on the internet, it becomes fairly easy to tap into this stream. In most cases it doesn't even need any type of law breaking. Google possibly knows a lot about you just by doing what they are supposed to do – remembering all the queries you submitted to the search engine and the links you clicked on. The same goes with social media companies like Facebook. Therefore, it is not surprising that these two companies also happen to be some of the wealthiest. Their strength and power comes from the personal information they control.
Beyond the larger entities that control a lot of personal information, there is the vast ocean of isolated information gathering technologies. There we have all the security cameras, the GPS-based smartphone apps that track our movement, our credit card transactions, and our library book borrowing habits etc. While each of these may have some degree of security protection around them, it is impossible to make them impenetrable. All of this data is connected to the internet, and therefore vulnerable.
Our individual private information is becoming ever more publicly available, either openly or through some degree of illegal manipulation or government coercing. However, we are not alone in being victimized. The same technologies also make all the powerful institutions just as vulnerable. It is not a coincidence that events like WikiLeaks or Snowden are happening with such high frequency. It is certainly not because we are suddenly producing an amazing number of smart whistle-blowers. The reason we are seeing this is because it has become so easy to get to their information and then carry them out. No need to have tiny cameras hidden in your pen, or access into the steel vaults. All you need is one willing individual and access to some computer files. A single email can carry an immense amount of sensitive information and a single smartphone can hold all the text that a large government entity can produce. It is this ease of access and transportation that is at the root of these leaks, and it will increase with time. It has also become very easy to share such information with the rest of the world -- we are no longer dependent on large media channels.
The fact that our privacy is being compromised, and secret government programs are getting exposed are two sides of the same coin. In other words, anyone who wants to keep something private, for whatever reason, is in a weaker position now. This includes individuals like us, corporate bodies, and our governments. No one’s secrets are safe anymore, and with newer technologies being introduced every day, it is becoming more vulnerable. Yet, secrecy and privacy are essential components of the human society. Starting at around the age of two we realize that what happens inside our head is private. From that day onward we learn to use this fact to our advantage, be it in play, in negotiating the price of a merchandise, in negotiating a business deal, or in negotiations between two countries. It is a bit naïve to believe that there can be a world where we will all be transparent, including our governments, but our ability to keep secrets will be challenged at every step, and we will ultimately fail most of the time.
It is not too far-fetched to imagine a time where there will be gadgets that can actually try to infer our emotional states either from physical changes on our face, or by directly measuring brain activities. Such research is already ongoing. It I also not impossible to imagine that this technology will finally be part of the eye glasses we wear. That will be the ultimate end of personal privacy.
We are standing at the threshold of a post-privacy society. It is just the beginning, and that’s why we are still surprised and enraged by these events. A few decades from now such things will be so commonplace that we will take them for granted. We will no longer assume privacy as a given, and start to act accordingly. We can see this to some extent in the social behavior of our youngest adults, because so much of their lives are exposed on the web, including some of their innermost thoughts. Our corporations and governments will also have to learn how to operate in a world where secrecy cannot be guaranteed. In a tiny village there are very few secrets. The vast computer network is making a village out of our world.
It is very hard for us to imagine a new set of social conduct and policy, both at a private level as well as at an organizational level, where privacy and secrecy cannot be assumed. It is also inevitable that it will be part of our cultural evolution where we will adapt to our new environment and find new ways to do our business and live our lives. I am sure government policymakers all over the world took note of the latest leakage events and are trying to find ways to prevent such things from happening. However, the smarter among them will also realize that this is a battle they cannot win. These people will try to find ways where they can do what they need to do, while assuming all along that their secrets are vulnerable and will eventually come out. Maybe they will find ways where they don’t have to depend on secrets anymore.
It is time we all accept a post-privacy world and learn how to deal with it and thrive.
Older Comments (3)
1. Sudhir Raikar said on 7/6/13 - 09:24PM
Brilliant summary. Extremely thought provoking. Hope it reaches as many Net users as possible.
2. Neela Sen said on 8/17/13 - 01:11AM
Indeed an eye-opener! Your article opens a vista of possibilities for the future of the way humankind will evolve. It could possibly be a "Satya Yug"!
3. Kunal Sen said on 8/17/13 - 06:31AM
Thank you, Neela. Instead of spending all of our energy reacting to breakdown of privacy, it would help if we could spare a little time thinking about and planning for the future where privacy cannot be taken for granted, I remember an event from 6-7 years ago, when our local public radio station in Chicago broadcast a fake "April Fools Day" story on April 1. The story was a fake "interview" of a company executive that apparently created a service that can create a dossier on any individual, using publicly available information (police records, credit scores, social media etc.) for a small fee. The intent was clearly to enrage their audience. Predictably, the radio station received a huge number of enraged comments from privacy conscious listeners, but the "fake" phone number they gave out for the company (which happened to be a funeral home in Florida) received even more calls about how they could buy the product. While we all like our own lives to be private, secretly we are less protective of other people's privacy, as long as it can be done without public knowledge. So, as long as the desire is there and the means are becoming available, it is a force that cannot be avoided completely. It is better to be prepared.