The Death of Digital Privacy

Lauren Reiff
Dec 3, 2019 · 8 min read
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

When I look to the horizon of the future, one of the issues I am most worried about is the tentacles of tech. I am worried about the slow crawl to total surveillance and the transformation of humans lives into literal commodities composed of raw data. Sound extreme? It’s actually not. Both governments and large corporations have been not only commoditizing us but swallowing up the last patches of privacy that are in existence.

The invasion of tech is not a neutral development; it is not merely the addition of useful devices and services into our lives. Technology abandons this facade of “useful neutrality” at precisely the moment that it is employed by people. More specifically, by people in power.

What we have on our hands, then, is a predicament whose base nature is political — whose battlefield is drawn between the elites and the masses. In many ways, the tentacles of tech are challenging the basic precepts of the U.S. Constitution, if not outright disobeying it. What’s interesting, however, is that modern technology is thrashing against the dictums of the Constitution and that few people seem to notice — or care.

There is a reciprocal relationship that strings the abilities of tech and our own freedom together. The more technology improves and the more of it we add, the less it seems we own our own information. This happens on two fronts:

  1. The first of these fronts is the federal government who has engaged in a number of clandestine programs over the years whose net effect is mass surveillance. In 2013, the NSA’s Edward Snowden famously released details on government projects — most notably, XKEYSCORE and PRISM that were explicitly designed to scoop up unfathomably large amounts of digital communication from American citizens. The intentions of these programs and many others were shady and disguised from the few situated in the mechanics of its operation. It is often the case that government corruption is concealed by way of layers of mundane bureaucratic processes.
  2. The second front can be located in the private sector — in the behemoth companies that dominate our digital communications, our social media presences, and record and collect nearly every interaction we have with a technological product or service. Consider that entities such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon casually go about robotically stockpiling our information with tireless efficiency.

Some people struggle to feel disturbed by these notions. The “invasiveness” feels expected and ultimately, benign. “What does it matter if I have nothing to hide?” many ask. When it comes to the government, such individuals chalk up Washington’s activities to the worthwhile task of “catching the bad guys”.

When it comes to the tech companies, people find it easy to dismiss the eerie feeling of being watched (when they end up with cross-platform ultra-specific ad recommendations, for example). They find it easy to dismiss because they have developed a dependence on these companies, their services, and their recommendations.

Strangely, some people even come to imbue these corporations with anthropomorphic qualities. Consider that their “helpfulness” feels like benevolence. And that their suggestions feel like friendship — as if they “know” us and our special tastes. (Which they do — and very well.)

And of these companies, their endless storage of our quirks, flaws, and very identities feels roughly akin to being cared for as a person. After all, it’s hard to criticize something that not only is so “nice” to you but that has rendered you dependent to the degree that it might make you uncomfortable to acknowledge that very dependence.

Nonetheless, this argument that we should shrug our shoulders at mass data collection because we have “nothing to hide” isn’t casting our gaze into the future very well. It’s also squarely positioning ourselves as “subjects” — as the lab rats at the mercy of scrutiny by the government and corporations alike.

Ultimately, you should want to own your own information. Here’s a number of reasons why you might want to take a hard stance against your digital identity being culled and cached in servers for all eternity.

1. Chances are, you do have something to hide:

Consider the multiplicity of laws that exist alongside the multiplicity of digital information brandished with your name. In addition, consider all the laws that could potentially be made in the future. And now think about the likelihood that you could be convicted for some crime — however specific or small. This excerpt from WIRED says it best:

“If the federal government had access to every email you’ve ever written and every phone call you’ve ever made, it’s almost certain that they could find something you’ve done which violates a provision in the 27,000 pages of federal statues or 10,000 administrative regulations. You probably do have something to hide, you just don’t know it yet.”

2. If they wanted to find something, they could:

Piggybacking off the previous point, it’s pretty easy to dredge up some dirt on someone. The activity of targeting individuals will only become more popular and probably more involved. Consider that this already occurs in the form of media backlashes concerning past offenses of celebrities and politicians. They are dragged out into the spotlight over events they usually wish they could have scrubbed from their personal histories and — here’s the important part — that they duly regret. Everyone has something they regret. But the unchecked powers of technology and government are no match for this sympathetic view on humanity.

3. Do they really have your best interests at heart?

Since when has total surveillance of your life been required to “keep you safe”? (As this is almost always the justification for such colossally sprawling programs.) Is it really true that, in the instance of the federal government, they are trying to protect you from criminals?

Or, on the other hand, is it more true that they subscribe to a widespread policy of suspicion when it comes to citizens? And that you yourself are, by default, one of these suspicious citizens? Is it more true that you are being watched (or could be watched) for tiny signs of criminality yourself?

4. What happens if you don’t trust your government?

In America, there are many people that will give a vigorous shake of their heads “no” to the question of whether they trust their own government. This is often true regardless of political allegiance, though usually a stronger aversion can be glimpsed on the republican side. This cynical sentiment is very old and a direct product of the political suspicion bred into us by our rocky origins as a nation and the accompanying founding documents — i.e. the U.S. Constitution.

What’s particularly ironic — and even concerning — is that nobody seems very bothered by the overreach on the part of the government, intelligence community, and tech corporations. We know it occurs — and so there must be an ideological mismatch. If anything, I suspect one likely culprit for this paradox is laziness. Another is the failure of imagination to perceive the consequences of these developments.

In any case, what happens if at some point you decide you really don’t trust these institutions? What if, say, the controlling party in the White House is very left-wing or very right-wing? Would you feel more violated then by the idea that your information was being collected? Would that shock you out of your laziness?

5. Being watched tends to make you more cautious, more conformist:

One of the most pernicious long-term side effects of a culture of mass surveillance is that it tends to change the very fabric of society by turning its individuals into scared little automatons. Knowing that your data could contain a thousand ways of incriminating you, you will naturally alter how you behave. You will likely become less individualistic, less willing to speak your mind, and deathly afraid of challenging the status quo.

China’s social credit system is a harrowing real time reminder of this very phenomenon in action. Its citizens are subjected to merciless surveillance which has the effect of molding them into “model citizens” petrified of stepping out of the narrow path of acceptable behavior. Its creepy hierarchy of citizens and its spectrum of rewards and punishments has the uncanny feel of a dystopian alternate reality.

As citizens, we have to be in charge of our future. Which means we ought to present opposition — or at least criticism — to anything that endangers that future. If we don’t, we allow those in power to take advantage of precisely this lack of attention. This attention deficit towards the progressively dangerous fusion of tech, government, and corporate clout is presently one of our worst shortcomings as American citizens.

And that’s indeed what it is — an attention deficit. The truth is, the “but I have nothing to hide!” rationalization is simply evidence of the truncation of critical thought. It’s a failure of imagination and consequently, we are consenting to putting our privacy up for sale and to laying our bare identities at the feet of those in power to scavenge through and even, to manipulate.

In Snowden’s memoir Permanent Record, he reveals a razor-sharp truth:

“The data we generate just by living — or just by letting ourselves be surveilled while living — would enrich private enterprise and impoverish our private existence in equal measure. If government surveillance was having the effect of turning the citizen into a subject, at the mercy of state power, then corporate surveillance was turning the consumer into a product, which corporations sold to other corporations, data brokers, and advertisers.”

In essence, we’re facing a pretty severe power imbalance. Our right to privacy is hardly acknowledged. The new normal has become transparency of our private selves, an exchange we didn’t really know we were making. Government officials and corporate executives alike ferret out the loopholes in the Constitution or just brazenly steamroll over them.

Power is timelessly seductive. And presently, the power is piled at the very top. Technology has been a great benefactor of society, but if it’s a tool that can be used for positive aims, it can just as well be utilized for negative ones. Technology can be a tremendous weapon depending on who holds it in their hands. The only way to ensure that the full powers of technology are not abused is to wrest it from those that have wrongfully acquired our digital DNA. The consequences are too dire.

In the years to come, technology will become even more a battleground with distinctly political implications. Consider that data is money and power, technology its enabler and source. And where data grows, so does power. My advice? Be careful what you wish for, pay attention, and remember that you have rights as an American citizen that only you can really protect.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Lauren Reiff

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writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between. forever in love with words —

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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