Monday, June 10, 2013

Privacy For the Highest Bidder

President Barack Obama
The Obama administration has received much-deserved criticism for recent revelations of its data mining from Americans’ phone, internet, and other digital records. Americans expect a democratically elected government to show its people sufficient deference that it won’t seize their business transaction records without solid, demonstrable need. Obama, however, evidently believes himself so above reproach, he makes George W. look submissive and subtle.

“Privacy” has become the watchword for the digital generation. We cower in fear of “identity theft,” and demand that government and industry keep their noses out of our business. But such demands ring hollow considering how thoroughly we’ve surrendered our privacy to for-profit businesses, especially social media and digital retailers. Ideas, principles, and preferences we once shared only with our closest confidants now get broadcast digitally for nigh-universal consumption.

We must abandon the conceit that Google, Verizon, and other digital platforms are philanthropic charities. These companies exist to sell ads, create a sense of want you didn’t previously share, and direct your attention to some purchase to supposedly bandage your bleeding soul. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has faced criticism for submarining status updates that transgress his political views. As Frank Schaeffer puts it succinctly: “the big tech companies aren’t run by nice people.”

According to Sasha Issenberg, massive databases store your every transaction—every Bing search, YouTube subscription, Amazon purchase, or Facebook like. Every time you Google porn while logged into YouTube, it creates a digital footprint. Plus-one this essay, and it’ll go on your record. Your credit score, buying habits, any transaction that leaves a record, goes in these databases. This information gets collated, tranched, packaged, and auctioned in absolute secret.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Entrepreneurs built these databases to calculate your receptivity to specific ads, and ensure those ads go only to audiences likely to buy. Thus, if you “like” the TV show Defiance on Facebook, say, ads for the Defiance online RPG start intruding on unrelated websites. No longer must advertisers chunk thirty-second spots into the TV ether and pray for rain. They can assure one-to-one correlation between ad and audience, streamlining the money flow.

Once exclusive domain of for-profit business, political parties discovered these databases during the Bush administration. If you’ve felt, in recent election cycles, that direct mailings and phone calls spotlight your personal hot buttons with eerie specificity, you aren’t wrong. Purchase anything on plastic, or log onto any site that has your real name, or pay your church tithe by check, and parties can purchase such records of your interests and beliefs.

Nothing separates advertisers’ and political parties’ daily doings from Obama’s scandals, except that the administration didn’t pay for it. The administration only wants information you’ve already surrendered freely, from corporations that, if they didn’t give it to the government, would sell it at substantial mark-up. And if, like me, you get twitchy when you can’t check your Facebook feed or blog stats regularly, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

As Jonathan Franzen notes, “privacy” is an emotional resonance, not a principle. Before the Internet, you did business locally, where neighbors knew which plain-brown-wrapper magazines you bought, and when you bought drinks for somebody who wasn’t your spouse. Privacy, in the sense of keeping secrets from people who have the ability to judge your actions and hold you to account, is at an all-time high.

If digital privacy truly merits such public umbrage, we might ask whether our own actions haven’t created the vulnerability we now regret. Our modern digital conveniences make life temporarily simpler, but we’ve turned our lives into marketable commodities, over which we have no commercial control. To halt the state’s drift into information autocracy, let’s start by not giving our information to corporations who don’t have our best interests at heart. CEO Jeff Bezos
Arguably, giving the administration information we’ve already surrendered may be better than leaving it to corporations. House Democrats face re-election in seventeen months, giving them a drop-dead deadline to hold President Obama accountable. Corporate CEOs have no small-d democratic safeguards over their terms, turning corporate autocrats like Mark Zuckerberg into the honey badger of modern capitalism: Zuckerberg don’t care. Zuckerberg don’t give a shit.

Don’t take me wrong. The administration’s apparent principle of treating citizens collectively as implicit terrorist suspects makes my skin crawl. Their approach besmirches the high-minded principles that got Obama re-elected seven months ago. But we citizens together have created the environment in which this administration operates. And if we really care enough to find this behavior offensive, let’s care enough to take our information back.

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