I just got a new smart-phone. It’s my second one, though unfortunately, the user isn’t any smarter. I thought I’d replace some of the apps that were on the device I’m ditching and so surfed over to the virtual Play Store, apparently my only option for downloading apps on an Android. (If you have an iPhone, your only option appears to be iTunes.) There, I found the free Facebook app, and clicked “Install.” To my surprise, the next screen told me that “Facebook needs access to (my): Device and App History, Identity, Contacts/Calendar, Location, SMS (texts), Phone, Photos/Media/Files, Camera/Microphone, Wi-Fi Connection Information, Device ID & Call Information.”
From the automobile to the personal computer, and everything in between, consumers’ indulgence in the latest and greatest in technology had always lacked something that comes standard with today’s purchases, the forfeiture of privacy.
According to the Edward Snowden revelations, everything that everyone in America has ever done on-line, or with a cell phone, is being recorded. If someone ever draws the spotlight, piques the interest of the National Security Agency (NSA), then the treasure trove of information that is our digital life, preserved for indefinite posterity, is at their disposal. By researching our computer’s IP address, our cell phone number(s), email address(es), Twitter/Facebook/Instagram accounts, and anything else we’ve ever done on a glowing screen, a Federal agent can know more about us than our own families or therapists. A personal selfie emailed to a girlfriend or boyfriend is stored forever in “the cloud.” Will it ever return to haunt? Who knows? We don’t know who has access to this information, or what they might do with it.
I declined. It seemed a little much.
What Facebook wanted opened my eyes to all of the different forms of information my cell phone/device is recording about me. We, the buying public, have tacitly agreed to carry around tracking devices in exchange for the conveniences they offer: texting, remote email access, on-line shopping, GPS, Solitaire, phone calls, just to name a few. This didn’t used to be the case. When I bought Boston’s first LP, all the record store knew was that another unit had moved from its shelf. No one knew if, when, or where I played it once it left their hands. This appears to have become an intolerable shortage of information about consumers to the modern corporation.
The technology that threatens the privacy we have always taken for granted in America didn’t exist until relatively recently, and it wasn’t until the Snowden revelations in 2013 that we found out that our most paranoid and Orwellian of fantasies were true. Now, regardless of how sensitive or private, more and more data is being gathered about each of us through constant, electronic surveillance. It appears that we surrender our right to this information by agreeing to the “terms of service” found in the mini-novelettes attached to everything we download or purchase these days. Perhaps we refuse to believe that any harm could come from it, but I think the number one reason we check the box beside “I agree to the terms and conditions” without actually reading them is that we can’t proceed otherwise.
Aside form the ”ick” factor, why should anyone be concerned about the mass surveillance network that is metastasizing across the United States and our planet? For one, people behave differently when they know they’re being watched. I remember being fairly free with my electronic speech when I thought that only my “friends” or intended recipients were reading it. Now, I’m fairly restrained. I self-censor.
“Get used to being watched.” Apparently, this is the new message that the information collectors hope the world will embrace. Who gets access to this information? How many people can see it? How is this information being used? How is it safeguarded? What are the limits on how it can be used and with whom it can be shared? How long will this information be stored? Might it be used by established power to blackmail someone who runs for political office, or leads a social movement? How hard will it be for someone to make a real difference in the Unites States of America from here forward given the indelible, electronic trail that each of us forges during our lifetimes, an ever growing chain to be borne like the one that yokes Marley’s ghost in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?
Is this okay with us? Is mass, ongoing, indiscriminate, anonymous surveillance and data collection something that belongs in America? Would the founding fathers approve? Is this practice in line with our values? Are we really so afraid of terrorists that we’re willing to acquiesce to being constantly watched and recorded? Should checking Facebook, playing Angry Birds, or using the flashlight feature on a smart-phone be costing us our privacy on any level?
These are the questions Americans, and the world at large should be asking. I dare proclaim that it’s not okay. It's too far. They may as well just tag us with little transmitters that beam whatever information they want to know, whenever they want to know it. While they’re at it, they might as well install a “kill switch.” You know, just in case. I’m only half kidding. I find the trajectory that we’re on to be alarming.
I want our protectors: the FBI, CIA, NSA, and US military to find the real bad guys, the guys that blow shit up, the whack-jobs, the extremists. Honestly, I’m more interested in our elected representatives finding ways for Americans not to have so many enemies in the first place, but this seems to be way down on their list of priorities. I believe that the NSA can do its job without casting an unending, round-the-clock information dragnet across the American citizenry. But since they are anyway, and since the amount of information they’re collecting will just increase in scope and complexity with time, at the very least, we need to draft and pass legislation that protects us from the harm that can result from their activity, an Information and Surveillance Protection Act, if you will, one that grants all Americans the right to legal redress for any suffering one might incur from the misuse of privileged, and presumed private electronic information, such as private emails, text conversations, or browsing and download histories. There is no way to predict how much more invasive and pervasive surveillance and data collection will become, but an Act of Congress might be all that can save us from power’s worst intentions.