Monday, July 15, 2013

Privacy is a fallacy, but we still want it.

I could sum up the entirety of my sentiment on the subject of this article with simply it's title alone, but that would be laziness.  Instead, I'll muse a bit on my thoughts on privacy in the 21st century, and despite the grim outlook, I shall attempt to offer a glimmer of hope.  Privacy is something we all desire at some level, because really, the world doesn't need to know every intimate detail of our lives.  Having nothing left to keep private, we are left exposed, unable to shield even the most personal aspects of who we are.  For some, that's not an issue, because they are so outspoken and outward with themselves, that little is left to the imagination.  For others, it's a huge problem, because they are private people and don't wish for details of their life to be on display.

Look, Mom, I'm on the Internet!

Now, that's both an oversimplification of the issue, as well as perhaps a touch of hyperbole, but the simple truth of the matter is that there's very little privacy left in the United States.  Other parts of the world are, perhaps, less prone to invasive scrutiny, but in the US, you have essentially none.  Sure, there are laws like HIPAA, US privacy-related tort laws (i.e. "right to be left alone"), the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Financial Services Modernization Act, and others.  But in the grand scheme of things, personal privacy continues to erode every day.  HIPAA might protect you against your neighbors gossiping about your latest medical mishap, but all they have to do to find out more about you than they might ever want to know is to enter your name in Google and see what they can find.  For most of us, that extends to a few benign references to our name, address, and possibly our home phone (for those that still have one), as well as a Google Maps (or similar service) satellite view of our house from space that updates every few hours.

If you're paranoid about that, imagine what information could be had by digging a little deeper, using more than one search engine, or via social engineering?  You'd be surprised what you can find out by contacting your employer, posing as someone important - ask the right questions, and sound "official" enough, and you can get away with quite a bit.  What about the recent data breaches in the news?  Between Sony's 2011 PlayStation Network fiasco, 3000+ records from the University of Illinois, 47,000+ records leaked from the Florida Department of Education, as well as the Washington State data breach, it's difficult to feel as though any personal information is safe in the modern age.  Indeed, anyone walking down the street could be taking a picture of you with their cell phone and posting it to any number of social networks.

"You could sit at home, and do like absolutely nothing, and your name goes through like 17 computers a day. 1984? Yeah right, man. That's a typo. Orwell is here now. He's livin' large. We have no names, man. No names. We are nameless!" - Cereal Killer, "Hackers"

In these times of increasing paranoia, distrust in the government at large, and growing unrest among US citizens in light of the recent NSA leak, it's easy to believe that indeed Orwell was right and that 1984 is 2013.  While I don't consider myself a conspiracy theorist, I do believe that the reach of the Federal government is FAR greater than it ought to be, and that by shrinking government and getting back to the business of what the Federal government is supposed to be about (i.e. securing & protecting our borders, enforcing laws that affect citizens at a national/federal level, upholding the Constitution, defending human freedoms, etc.), we as citizens would all be much better off.  In the absence of a populace willing to stand up and demand those rights continue to be upheld, what are we left with, other than to face continued demoralization by a government that says one thing and does another?

All is not lost, however.  While conservatives spout "end times" rhetoric as liberties are eroded away, and liberals decry conservatives whenever they speak up trying to defend those rights (like the 2nd Amendment, which has come under attack in recent months), try to remember that there is nothing new under the sun.  Either side will continue to try and encroach up on the other's territory as much as they can, and whenever they feel they've achieved some level of victory on a particular front, will flaunt that as much as they can to show that their specific set of values or idioms are what the American people are truly striving for.  What both sides fail to realize (or heed), strangely enough, is that most Americans aren't looking to propel one platform over another by and large.  Most Americans want to do their thing and be left alone.  None of us want the Federal Government prying into our lives - not because we have anything to hide, but because, at the end of the day, it's nobody's business.  It's not the NSA's business who I'm calling, where I'm going on the Internet, or what I do in my free time outside my professional life.

This basic sentiment of personal freedom continues to permeate social media, despite what the Federal Government would like us to believe.  Twitter, Facebook, and other networks are awash with posts about liberty, freedom, and the greatness of America, or at least the greatness of what America is SUPPOSED to be about.  We may have lost some of that in recent years, but the belief in America is still there and people still cling to that image of America as the leader of the free world.  I still have pride in my country, even if the leadership has been lacking over the last couple decades or so.  People have a fundamental right to privacy that continues to be violated daily, and while some folks bring it upon themselves, most of us just try to conduct ourselves in a way that meets our needs and stays out of the way of other people.

I can't offer a solution, other than to vote differently next time you have the chance.  Election times are always about voting for the lesser of two evils, because let's face it: the adage is true.  Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  You think President Obama is the shining beacon of hope he tried to push himself off as in his campaign?  Hardly.  Nor do I think former Presidents Bush or President Clinton are beyond reproach, either.  While I think Ronald Reagan was the last great American President, he wasn't perfect either.  And never forget that the burden of responsibility with the loss of privacy doesn't rest solely on their shoulders, either.  Various elected officials, judges, and intelligence agencies are just as culpable in the race to take away basic privacy.

What I can do is suggest you protect yourself as much as possible.  Don't give out personal information unless it's required, and give only what is minimum necessary.  Stop using big search engines for most of what you're looking for.  Okay, sure, Google Images might be the best place to find a great idea for decorating a cake, but for everything else, try another search engine like IXQuick instead, who is based outside the US and has privacy as its primary aim.  Be cognizant of your phone calls and understand that no cell phone service provider (or land-line provider, for that matter) is exempt from government scrutiny.  Email, text messages, instant messaging - all can be snooped unless this traffic is encrypted, so consider solutions that give you that ability wherever and whenever possible.  Any time you use electronic communication devices, understand that you're sacrificing some level of privacy.

I realize that this is little comfort in light of recent events, but sometimes all we can do is take one step in the direction we wish to go and hope we find our way.  We need to continue to fight (and vote for) our rights to be upheld.  We need to pester our senators and representatives to continue that fight for us in Washington.  We need to make our voices loud and clear in every avenue that we don't want government interfering in our daily lives.  Use social media to speak out about these things in generalities, to show that you want your rights protected, but not give any reasons other than that it's your right.  The more we band together across political and ideological lines to demand our rights be protected, perhaps the better chance we stand for that to actually happen.

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