Thanks to technology, the extent to which everyday citizens can be monitored and tracked is rapidly increasing. Anyone with interest can learn to GPS track a cell phone. Facial recognition software now answers correctly 97% of the time, and commercial versions—such as the one used by Facebook—are as powerful as those used by the FBI. The ability of computers to store and process massive amounts of data increases both supply and demand of data on everyday citizens in countries all over the world.
I do not say this to be alarmist, but rather to remind us of the current technological landscape. These facts are neither good nor bad, they are simply the facts.
And as technology keeps rapidly advancing, the possibilities for surveillance are also expanding.
Meanwhile, Silicon Valley hypocritically markets itself as the new ground zero of freedom, while also cooperating heavily with the NSA and international agencies. As James Risen and Nick Wingfield wrote in their 2013 article for the New York Times, both Silicon Valley and the National Security Agency “hunt for ways to collect, analyze and exploit large pools of data about millions of Americans. The only difference is that the N.S.A. does it for intelligence, and Silicon Valley does it to make money.”
But beyond their shared interests in data mining, sites like Facebook actually end up sharing a large amount of the information they collect: In addition to cooperating with the NSA when legally compelled, “current and former industry officials say the companies sometimes secretly put together teams of in-house experts to find ways to cooperate more completely with the N.S.A. and to make their customers’ information more accessible to the agency.”
It is particularly troubling to know that the technology itself is being built in a way so as to make spying and data sharing easier, faster and more efficient! It seems that a choice could be made by companies to actually make this harder, if that were what they wanted. They are in a position to erect obstacles to spying, based on their position.
This power highlights the complex and problematic situation discussed by Rebecca MacKinnon in her book, Consent of the Networked: Internet companies, often operating without significant regulation—and, importantly, without the democratic legitimacy of a governmental institution—control the back end of a system that shapes our very rights and privacies.
What’s fascinating to me is that, while some vocal critics are outraged about data sharing, digital spying, and its implications, many Americans simply acquiesce.
I myself am guilty of this. While it bothers me to know how much information is gathered on me online, and I cringe slightly each time I enter my bank information, social security number, or email address into a secure web form, I still do it. It feels inevitable, and I feel powerless to change it.
And I am not alone. A 2013 survey conducted by the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future and Bovitz Inc shows that Millenials accept that online privacy is dead, indicating a major shift in online behavior.
At the same time, a 2013 Pew Research Report found that “most internet users would like to be anonymous online at least occasionally,” and “some 68% of internet users believe current laws are not good enough in protecting people’s privacy online.”
Given our disapproval of the status quo, why are Americans so willing to acquiesce? Have we become so addicted to and dependent upon Facebook that we are unwilling to go without it? And this is not just a social thing where we want to feel “in the loop” and that we have a lot of friends—for many, myself included, Facebook is an essential part of one’s profession. There are more and more services that require Facebook as a way to sign in or sign up. And Google is the best out there for searching, are we really going to forgo using it?
We seem to have fewer and fewer options for removing ourselves from online data collection, short of going off the grid altogether. And we know that Americans are uneasy about what’s going on. But why aren’t we outraged? And why aren’t we doing anything?
What fascinates me is that people in the developing world are even more skeptical of putting their data online—repression is not so long ago in their collective memory, nor has it been as well-hidden as the insidious NSA spying. And in other countries, that information has been acted upon, whereas in the US we are still just teeing up and setting the stage for future potential action.