Threats to privacy should be a cause for concern
BY ANDREW WILK
That advances in technology have robbed us of our privacy is not exactly news; however, I wonder if we give enough attention to this problem. Moreover, the intrinsic fairness of giving away so much of our privacy in exchange for security and convenience should be more closely examined. I wonder if, when the history of our time is written, we will be remembered as the first generation to live in a truly Orwellian police state — albeit one that far exceeds anything that George Orwell could possibly have imagined.
Cellphone companies have, of course, long been selling warrantless access to our GPS information and phone records to law enforcement — this is old news.
Moreover, the wonders of social media have, as many have noted, done much to both bring us together and make life exceedingly simple for all but the most incompetent of stalkers.
When we travel on airplanes, we are now viewed as possible terrorists instead of passengers. Cameras mounted on intersections in all our major cities monitor and record our movements — while allowing law enforcement agencies to build a database of our travels based on captured images of our license plates.
It was recently revealed that the credit rating company Equifax has built an immense database of our salary information, now available for a price to bill collectors, marketers and virtually anyone else willing to pay the price of access. Police agencies around the United States are pricing drone aircraft to use for routine surveillance — a pilotless eye in the sky to record our every movement.
The trump card whenever anyone questions whether we should be scared of our Big Data Big Brother is pretty straightforward: All of this is a good idea because it is helping to make us safer and our lives more convenient. However, I hesitate to conflate the two. Being able to pay my cellphone bill through an app is one thing; having some snoopy deputy accessing my text messages from the comfort of his desk for a nominal charge is another.
Indeed, recent stories out of New York City regarding the NYPD's use of extraordinarily intrusive surveillance techniques to sniff out terrorists does, in and of itself, fill me with a vague sense of terror.
Could any of us be swept into a police cordon because we once knew someone who is now overly critical of the government? Should we be concerned that we might become some police agency's "person of interest" because our college roommate does something that touches on a part of the world we now deem hostile?
I hate to seem paranoid, but given that virtually everything we do these days involves computers — and a shadow empire of public and private security firms is busily fishing in the data ocean in which we all swim — who is to say which one of us is next to be hooked for reasons either somewhat reasonable or utterly absurd?
Moreover, how would we ever know that our words and actions had attracted the attention of an entity that either wants to target us for investigation or simply sell our information to someone who thinks they can use it to make a buck further down the line?
Where, in other words, are the boundaries for what is permissible, the protections to ensure that we do not become unwitting targets for an invasion of our privacy, and the legal avenues for recourse if we somehow end up as fish — entirely innocent ones — wriggling in a net that we did not even know existed?
Some years back one of my students made an interesting point in an essay regarding the post-9/11 changes to airline security — that the only way to ensure no one was carrying a bomb or a gun on an airplane is to require that all passengers and crew fly naked. When we discussed her paper in class, we all, of course, chuckled at how cleverly she had skewered overly aggressive airline security practices by proposing a completely ridiculous idea.
And it was ridiculous — until I started being X-rayed at the departure gate and groped by TSA employees because I foolishly wanted to spend Thanksgiving with my sister.
I worry both because we have very little notion of what is being watched and what is not — and why — and we seem simultaneously so irrationally frightened and wedded to convenience that we have very little concern about our rapidly diminishing privacy. Some surveillance is, quite naturally, a price we all pay for public safety.
However, taken to its most extreme, we could all have to put our fingerprints and DNA on file with the police, fill out paperwork to explain why we want to travel beyond a designated perimeter around our homes — and be surrendering all our clothes before we board a shuttle flight. Could any of this really happen because "it is for our own safety and convenience"? One has to at least ponder the possibility.
It would never have occurred to me, for example, that a private data company would develop information processing tools so powerful and intrusive that they can monitor every email and phone call — no joke, this is reality — and is profiting handsomely by selling this mind-boggling technology to governments and intelligence agencies around the world. Which ones, you may ask? We don't really know. The company will not comment publicly, and there is no way to force them to disclose which nations — whether democracies or dictatorships — are using their products to spy on whomever they choose for whatever reason they deem appropriate.
Of course, concerns about the intrusiveness of this sort of technology can easily be brushed aside with the assurance that "you have nothing to worry about unless you have something to hide." However, is this really the world we want to live in? One where our words are under constant scrutiny by some computer algorithm that we hope realizes that there is no threat involved if we call a movie that we did not like "a bomb"?
Perhaps our robot overlords are clever enough to understand that making pointed criticisms of our leaders is not the same as violent intent and having more than three Arabic-speaking friends does not meet the profile for terrorist sympathizer, but you have to wonder.
Given that it has — on more than one occasion — required multiple phone calls to convince some harried customer service representative that the computer that generates my cable TV bill made a mistake, I wonder if we can rely so completely on the reliability of a line of computer code that is somehow supposed to divine our intentions.
One of the peculiar aspects of re-reading "1984" at this point in time is the realization that the totalitarian control envisioned by George Orwell is — to be frank — so quaintly antiquated as to seem laughable.
His world of newspaper clippings and incinerators, however chilling the underlying vision, is something born of a more human-scaled era that required actual people to spy on and oppress us. Now it is a computer chip that keeps an eye on our every thought and action with a cold-blooded and unblinking efficiency that should give all of us pause.
I just hope that writing this commentary doesn't offend some piece of software somewhere that is now going to start a file on me. After all, if I'm not more careful about what I say, I may end up flying naked the next time I get on a plane to visit my sister.
Andrew Wilk is a former teacher at Urbana High School and a regular commentator on education issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.