I first became aware of privacy by way of security cameras. I looked up one day, saw a camera looking back, and understood that I wasn’t just being watched –I was being monitored.
Even before computers really hit their stride at the turn of the century, it was easy to see the surveillance infrastructure we’re so accustomed to today just finding its legs. Cameras popped up — visibly — in department stores, gas stations, grocery stores, movie theaters, and parking lots. Even those places who had used cameras for years, like banks, seemed to make an effort to put those mechanical eyes in the sky in full view as a deterrent to would-be criminals.
It was unsettling. As camera technology became more sophisticated, it became smaller. Those huge, black fiberglass domes you’d see in most department stores were replaced with rows upon rows of small, individual camera domes, dotting the ceiling like a grid. I worked at a few of those stores in my late teens and got to see behind the scenes, where the corporate dragnet filters through the security office. I stood in front of the screens and watched people move like ants between clothing racks far below.
That was at least a decade ago. Technology is smaller now. Button cameras look back at you from the gas station. Most computers and phones come with webcams that pose a potential security risk. Traffic and street cameras line the roads, often with resolution clear enough to identify civilians when paired with facial recognition.
Even if you disregard the visual threat, the data you willingly provide to social networking sites and internet service providers, your digital footprint, can be used to track you. Couple that with digital fingerprinting, which tracks which unique equipment regularly visits what websites, and those remaining gaps in personal identity begin to fill in.
The thing is: while some of these upgrades are fairly recent, most of the major infrastructure was in place long before the privacy conversation became a topic of public interest. The Internet as we know it is quantifiable. Data is trackable. It’s no stretch to understand that governments and corporations have a vested interest in knowing more about you, the citizen and the consumer, and it’s why the war for privacy was lost before it even started.
It was pretty much inevitable, and it wasn’t to protect your freedom.
Let’s put the Snowden revelations aside for a second. Pretend we don’t know about PRISM and Boundless Informant, NSA metadata collection, FISA Courts and that 9/11 didn’t scare the United States into passing the Patriot Act or invading the Middle East. While we’re at it, let’s assume that we’re experiencing world peace and that nobody is at war with anybody, that there is no crime, and no justifiable reason for wiretaps, stingrays, and watch lists to exist.
Data collection — on a massive scale — still would’ve happened.
There’s money to be made in knowing about your consumers, your constituents, and the public at large. Sociologists collect data with polls and surveys. The Census Bureau captures population and demographic statistics. News networks monitor ratings and readership. A great example: Target Corporation uses customer purchase history to predict what items they might need and sends coupons to entice them to shop again, sometimes to disastrous results.
Alone, data is just a tool to assist in decision-making. Sometimes, it’s a justification. Sometimes, it’s a gut check on an idea. But data is inherently neutral — neither good nor bad — until someone decides to use it. Today, the wholly negative perspective on privacy comes from Big Data capture and a government-sectioned surveillance dragnet that seems to nod eerily to Minority Report and 1984, but the truth is, data collection would have happened anyway by corporations looking to profit from knowing their customers better.
The funny thing is, we give most of that information away for free.
Social networks make you a product, not a user.
Whether you consider social media moguls like Mark Zuckerberg and Tom Anderson to be creative visionaries or business-savvy entrepreneurs, you’ve got to realize that websites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter aren’t inherently valuable. Because these sites are social media platforms, they’re only as valuable as their number of active users, who utilize their sites as connection platforms and willingly provide information that makes them a target for potential advertisers. (Interested in how that makes social media valuable? Here’s a marketing guide.)
At their core, these websites are information gold mines, who stand to make a huge profit by brokering that information to companies that want you to buy their products and services. This isn’t inherently bad. You may even want to be advertised to or know about any one brand — I like that Spotify knows my musical preferences so that it can show me new artists relevant to my tastes.
This data is usually sold in bundles, often thousands of records at a time. It takes a ton of information, collected and compiled, for brokering to make a substantial profit or impact. Of course, the more information a company has about you, the more specific they can be when targeting you. For the curious, here’s a calculator to tell you how much your personal data is worth.
However, by surrendering that information to a company — which will optimize toward profitability, as companies are designed to do — it would be naive to think that surrendering that information isn’t also compromising privacy. Even though it doesn’t sound as immediately threatening as government surveillance and anti-terrorism watch lists, providing your information to an online user registration form only changes which potential list you might be on and who might be interested.
In today’s world, where many users consider social networking a must to stay connected with friends and loved ones, privacy is trumped by a desire to reach out and remain available beyond face-to-face conversations. That convenience is a trade and one that most of us are willing to make, regardless of privacy concerns.
You’re being tracked, with or without your consent.
So let’s say that you don’t like this new, interconnected world. You’re worried about prying government eyes, heartless advertisers, and social media titans pedaling likes. You don’t enjoy the idea that someone is potentially stealing your information with tracking tools just because you wanted to catch up on the news.
What can you really do about it?
Good question. That answer depends on your technological savvy, and what services you can live without. Maybe you can ditch that Twitter account that you never really used or delete Instagram from your phone. Facebook might be more difficult if you’re really integrated. Keep in mind that it’s not as simple as deactivating your account. Social networks want all the information they can get, and some will track you around the web even if you don’t use their service, to learn what they can from your digital footprint and browsing habits.
Some browser extensions, like Privacy Badger from the Electronic Frontier Foundation or Ghostery specialize in blocking trackers to keep your information private. You could also delve into Tor or utilize SRWare Iron for additional security. You could change operating systems, especially considering the major players like Windows and Mac have experienced notable security problems in the recent past.
You may have noticed by now: safeguarding your privacy can be quite a bit of work. It would be impractical to give up the Internet, but protecting your information isn’t inherently easy. It requires special tools, extensions, and an adjustment of browsing habits to remain effective — not to mention the technological wherewithal needed to stay current on new trends trickling through the data stream.
And none of this still broaches how your ISP and the government can track your devices and collect data from the physical lines running through your home. Knowing that everything above is just the surface level to protect your information from interested companies (not governments or infrastructure entities), just how much of this are you really willing to do?
This goes farther back than you think.
Though talk about the war for privacy had been brewing for years before Edward Snowden fled the country with information regarding the NSA’s surveillance apparatus, that was the tipping point for the American public. The idea that hidden courts had authorized sweeping surveillance on American citizens without public consent — sometimes in the face of Constitutional rights — brought a conversation about privacy into the public eye.
Facebook has been around since 2004. MySpace was 2003. Friendster was 2002. These companies really hit their stride in the 2008-2009 era, with Friendster, then MySpace, competing for status as the de-facto social network before losing out to modern-day Facebook.
That’s plenty of time for interested parties, corporate and government alike, to establish contracts, orders, mandates, and justifiable laws before the public was even interested in the privacy conversation. By the time talk about privacy reached a tipping point, any war for privacy was already lost by the general public.
The conversation we’ve been having for the past four years has been about damage control, terrorism and safety, and continuing an infrastructure where the fight for privacy is an uphill battle. At this point, due of the myriad ways to track and analyze data, the number of interested parties, and the lack of technical knowledge surrounding the general population, the fight for privacy is unlikely to gain much ground.
In essence, the war was over before the battle even began.