|President Barack Obama|
“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|
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.
|Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos|
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.
- Frank Schaeffer, Google, Microsoft and Facebook Are More of a Threat to Privacy Than the US Government
- Jonathan Franzen, "Imperial Bedroom," from How to Be Alone: Essays
- Sasha Issenberg, The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns