The ongoing controversy surrounding Edward Snowden has reminded me that the issues of privacy are not recent. Indeed, the notion of “other people” knowing what you are doing at all times was very much a 20th Century concern, albeit a mostly analog one. Certainly the advent of the Internet and sites like Facebook have made “big data” a complicated issue: we tend to embrace innovation when it suits us and resist—or fear—it when we see potential threats.
It obliges questions like, what is Big Data and how is it used? Is it mostly good or entirely bad? What, for that matter, is privacy as it relates to our personal lives in the new millennium? It is also imperative to recognize that technology is never a static phenomenon; by the time we grapple with one aspect of a particular product or progression, it often has already mutated, improved or become something else altogether. I spent the summer of 2010 puzzling over the facts, figures and opinions in a piece for our annual Five Technology Trends To Watch.
One thing is certain: the intersection between the private and the public when it comes to data collection is never simple and at best is always uneasy. The debate about privacy—collective and individual—is ultimately an issue of control. The reality, which is good, bad and ugly (or all three depending upon your perspective) is that we reside in an odd era where we at once have as much and as little autonomy as any time in history. How you process this ostensible contradiction will likely determine how troubled, or not, you are by recent events.
The concept of privacy and technology is nothing if not complicated, intriguing and, importantly, ever-changing. As is always the case, before we can predict with any hope of accuracy what the future will look like, we need to adequately understand both the present and the past. Any conversation about Big Brother running roughshod over our privacy rights needs to acknowledge that this is not remotely a new phenomenon. For an artistic meditation on the paranoia the Watergate scandal begat, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is essential viewing. For a more contemporary take on professional surveillance, David Simon—creator of The Wire—has an enlightening and provocative piece available on his blog.
To be certain, the idea of the most powerful government in the world snooping on a citizen’s online activity is something out of an Orwell novel. Indeed, the entire notion of online activity would be something even Orwell could never have conceived. As always, there is a flip side to every innovation: as the Internet has empowered individuals to write, speak, and shop, it also extends the possibility of these endeavors being overseen. What is undeniable is that when it comes to privacy (online or otherwise) it’s very often only the occasional abuses or oversights that catch our attention.
For instance, consider the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon. Less than a decade ago a tragedy of this magnitude might have left us paralyzed: with fear, misinformation and false leads. Of course, with technology and the expertise with which everyday Americans utilize it, pictures, social media and cooperation by diverse communities enabled the perpetrators to be identified—and captured—in remarkably short order. It always raises eyebrows and elicits skepticism, but it’s difficult to deny that the government has used techniques—however controversial—to foil terror attacks and yes, keep us safe. Accepting and/or endorsing this does not require providing an apathetic blank check to the powers that be.
We need to keep our public officials as accountable, and ensure that incompetence—or worse—does not occur on our watch, in our names. On the other hand, we have to be cognizant that a million spies with a million hours could scarcely begin to keep track of all the correspondence occurring every minute via email, Facebook and Twitter. Privacy itself may seem a quaint or antiquated notion, but the truth is, we live in a very different, very digital world. What we do know might unnerve us, but what we do not know is capable of damage that extends beyond privacy concerns.