Essays on Technology and Culture

Is There Really a War On Privacy?

More and more, I’m of the mind that “Internet” problems are just old problems happening in a new way. They can be larger in scale and scope, or occur in a way that confuses people not up on the world of technology, but they’re fundamentally the same old problems. The battle over privacy is one of these problems that has bubbled up in the public consciousness over and over again.

After all, domestic spying is nothing new, and arguably reached a peak in the US (before the current one) during the height of the Cold War. As long as there’s been ways to track what consumers are watching and buying, companies have been doing it. Even before Internet tracking was a thing, I came home from school at age 14 to find Gillette had mailed me a razor. I’m sure Photomat employees would develop copies of any vaguely pornographic pictures that customers dropped off for development. None of this is new.

What’s new is that we know more about it. The same technology that lets corporations and governments get all the data they want on us, also lets us share what we’ve learned—and do it without the news media as a go-between. The question is if people care. If you live in the bubble of technology, there’s two main opposing voices: the “embrace surveillance” view of Kevin Kelly and his ilk, and the lock yourself down view of privacy advocates. Though, truth be told, there’s also a spectrum of middle positions in the tech world.

But for ordinary people? Many of them aren’t even in the discussion. They don’t care what Facebook does with their data, if they get tracked by Google, or if the NSA is peeking through their phone records. Privacy for them is a matter among their social groups. If a nude pic gets sent to the wrong person, maybe to an ex-lover, that’s cause for alarm. When it comes to the systematic privacy violations they’re subjected to, I doubt many of them care.

And that’s just the way that Facebook and the NSA alike would like to keep it.