With new technology, privacy is dead
Published: Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Updated: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 23:05
"There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time." So reads a passage from George Orwell's famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell was talking about the dangers of totalitarianism, but his words could just as easily apply to our present-day society. It's not just the government that's to blame for the increasing erosion of our privacy-we too are at fault. The information age has radically transformed our lives-and not just for the better. Fifty years ago, there were no computers, no e-mail, no Internet, no cell phones, no Facebook, no Google and no Twitter. If you wanted to talk to someone, you had to pick up the phone or send them a letter or, you know, actually talk to them. Remember, these were primitive times. And if you wanted to look something up, you went to the library-as in, physically walked. You get the picture.
Fast forward to today. With almost 2 billion Internet users and 5 billion cell phone subscriptions globally, we're more connected than ever. We regularly chat, text, e-mail and instant message and think nothing of it.
Of course, these modern technologies are not really necessary-until you use them. It's interesting that before GPS was invented, people drove around just fine. Now suddenly, everyone's lost without one. Are we becoming slaves to our own tools?
It seems that every day, we are becoming more and more dependent on technology. The sum total of human knowledge is not yet a click away, but we're not too far off. Who needs to remember anything when you can just "Google" it? It's as if common sense is optional when you've got the latest gadgets. In a news story last year, two preteen girls who were trapped in a storm drain used their cell phones to update their Facebook statuses instead of calling for help. Technology has become so ingrained in our lives that it has become a substitute for intelligence and personal responsibility. The more technologically dependent we become, the easier it is for our rights and privacy to be stripped away through the misuse of technology.
At security checkpoints, airports have begun using full-body X-ray scanners that show revealing 3-D images of flight passengers, all in an attempt to "combat terrorism." Besides being expensive and time-consuming, this technology does little to actually keep us safer. Retinal and fingerprint scanners; facial recognition and even so-called "mind reading" devices that can sense heart rate, body temperature and breathing are all in the works. When will it end? We must not let a false sense of security lead us into mandatory invasions of privacy and violations of basic human rights. This is the "doublespeak" that Orwell warned about.
Video surveillance cameras are being installed in schools and on school buses, even in school bathrooms. Elementary schools are no exception. Red light cameras at intersections and speed cameras on the highway are used to monitor traffic. Programs like Google Earth or Street View make it easy to access high-resolution panoramic views of virtually any location in the world. RFID or "radio-frequency identification" tags are small printable sensors or chips that can be used to track and identify an object or person. The latest versions are less than 1/10 of a millimeter in size and practically invisible to the naked eye. Even Internet searches can be monitored to an extent. We are relinquishing our freedom in exchange for safety, and wisdom in exchange for information.
All of these technologies have many practical benefits, and it would be paranoid to get rid of them all entirely. Nineteen Eighty-Four is the stuff of conspiracy theories. Yet it is becoming increasingly difficult to see where to draw the line, where the risks outweigh the benefits. In the wrong hands, any technology has the potential for abuse-does that mean we should revert to the Stone Age? Are we willing to make compromises? How much are we willing to give up?
But the biggest threat to our privacy may not be the tools of a centralized government, but rather, ourselves.
We carelessly share every detail of our lives then wonder what happened to our privacy. Putting your phone number or not-so-professional pictures of yourself on Facebook is not exactly the brightest idea. Strangers, employers and people you thought were friends can all use such information against you. Shocking, I know. Identity theft would not be nearly as much of an issue if people were more careful about their credit card and personal information. We are too quick to blame others when we should be taking more responsibility for our own actions. Never overestimate how much privacy you actually have.
Low-cost surveillance and the equalizing forces of information technology mean that anyone can spy on anyone else. Video blogs, status updates, personal Web pages-unless you take active measures to protect your own privacy-are visible to anyone with an Internet connection.
We are becoming a transparent society. Orwell was wrong. It's not Big Brother that's watching: It's us.