Privacy Is Just A Word
) - Everybody's talking about privacy these days, and it's almost impossible to find anyone who believes we have any left. As hard as it might be to stomach, there are several reasons why these suspicions are valid.
Highlighted by recent developments from Internet search giant Google, Americans are beginning to realize that privacy is quickly becoming extinct. In October 2009, popular micro-blogging website Twitter, said it coupled up with Google to make users' tweets (short blog postings) available on Google.com. It's called real-time content, and puts up-to-the minute tweets directly in front of Internet users who search Google using the same words found in those tweets.
Hoarding millions of Twitter messages--which will undoubtedly be stored for an eternity--adds to Google's ever-growing desire to organize and retain content. Already playing host to several information collectors like Google Checkout, Google Docs, Google Earth, and now the Google Nexus One smartphone, the search giant appears to be making a worldwind of shameless grabs at personal data--all under the guise of organizing the world's information.
We all like convenience, but what exactly is Google doing with all of that information? Some of it appears to be used for marketing products and services to users, but what other motives do they have for retaining so much data?
Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in a CNBC interview: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."
Really? It's amazing how blame gets shifted to the people who express concern over retaining some semblance of privacy. Schmidt's statement spawned several debates about Google's reach, and whether federal regulators should attempt to limit the amount of data Google retains.
Even more intriguing was Schmidt's admission that there are cases where Google may be forced to release your personal data. "If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines - including Google - do retain this information for some time and it's important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities," Schmidt stated.
But it's not just Google's tactics that spin the privacy wheel off its axle. Microsoft, which owns the Bing search engine and 73% of the browser market with Internet Explorer, has also teamed up with Twitter to make user content available for real-time searches. And you can bet sites like Yahoo, AOL, Ask and others will soon follow suit.
Facebook, a huge social network with millions of users, has created its own privacy headaches lately. The company changed its privacy settings in an attempt to make it easier for users to control their profiles. But the change also made it easier for profile information to be shared with all Facebook users. For example, if you fail to modify your privacy settings--name, location, photos, joined networks, and friends list--those items will be publicly available to other users. This means everyone on the Internet can search for it--exposing potentially private information that was previously restricted.
So where did all of this come from? Why are Internet companies allowed to track our web searches and store private information? How did we reach a point where privacy is no longer respected, and every ounce of our personal lives has been made available to the highest bidder?
Look no further than your friendly federal government.
The U.S. government--through its desire to fight the global war on terrorism--has used several questionable and uncomfortable tactics over the years to build an information network capable of tracking you, me, and anyone who breathes air within U.S. borders.
Sound scary? It should.
Americans are willing to accept a small loss of privacy in return for a safer country. But the actual cost, and what each American has to give up, is disturbing. What we are seeing is the total destruction of personal privacy, and many Americans are blindly accepting it as a cool, new, convenient way of having the world at their fingertips.
Regulating Internet companies and the services that weaken privacy will likely never happen. If it does, the resulting laws will be minimal. Tech giants like Google have mastered the art of acquiring something our government desperately wants--information
. And supporters don't blame the feds for their motives or methods. "Gather all the information you want," they say. "I have nothing to hide, and I hope you catch all the bad guys who do have something to hide."
But it goes far beyond that. For years, the U.S. government has sought to provide intelligence analysts, law enforcement officials, and itself, with instant access to information. They do it by casting a nationwide dragnet designed to detect and identify foreign terrorists. During this process, the feds are learning more and more about our personal habits. Whether you're buying a six-pack of yogurt at your local market, or reading this article on the web--the feds want to know about it.
After the terror attacks in 2001, Americans wanted to be vigilant. Our anger towards terrorists allowed many of us to open our minds to the possibility of a nation on semi-lockdown. If we had to spend extra time navigating airport checkpoints, so be it. If a picture ID was required to enter a government facility, that's great. We even allowed President George W. Bush and his deceptive cronies to lead us into costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite protests by our allies worldwide.
But then we woke up. We began to slowly recognize the methodical accumulation of information as more than just a response to the global war on terror. We were being spied on through an interconnected maze of cameras, scanners, online merchant gateways, and wireless celluar networks. Our government was collecting personal information about us and no one knew what it would lead to.
Responding to the 9/11 attacks, President Bush announced the creation of the Office of Homeland Security (OHS) to coordinate "homeland security" efforts. The organization's primary mission is to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks and respond to natural disasters. Its establishment--at such a critical time in our nation's history--opened a can of truly frightening worms.
In November 2002, The New York Times
exposed the existence of retired Vice Admiral John Poindexter’s Total Information Awareness (TIA) data collection program, an eavesdropping program started earlier that year. Poindexter, formerly President Reagan’s National Security Adviser, is known for his several felony convictions including obstruction, perjury, conspiracy and destroying classified documents during the mid-80s Iran-Contra affair.
The TIA program is part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and it allows the government to keep tabs on almost everything an individual does. Described by critics as Orwellian due to its striking similarities to 1984's Big Brother, TIA's missions will certainly result in reduced privacy, increased government secrecy and the strengthened protection of the feds own special interests.
So how does Google, Facebook, wireless smartphones, GPS-enabled devices, our government and TIA tie together? And, how will these things help shape the privacy landscape of the future?
In a well-written New York Times article from 2002, conservative columnist William Safire (referring to TIA's inclusion in the Homeland Security Act) breaks it all down:
"If the Homeland Security Act is not amended before passage, here is what will happen to you: Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every Web site you visit and e-mail you send or receive, every academic grade you receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book and every event you attend—all these transactions and communications will go into what the Defense Department describes as ‘a virtual, centralized grand database.’ To this computerized dossier on your private life from commercial sources, add every piece of information that government has about you—passport application, driver’s license and bridge toll records, judicial and divorce records, complaints from nosy neighbors to the FBI, your lifetime paper trail plus the latest hidden camera surveillance—and you have the supersnoop’s dream: a ‘Total Information Awareness’ about every US citizen."
Remember Google's Eric Schmidt mentioning how Google's data (along with tweets and searchable Facebook data) could be made available to authorities? It, too, should be included in Safire's aforementioned list.
Despite its glaring civil liberties implications, most of the media failed to report on the TIA program in 2002, and most Americans are still being convinced (by the U.S. government) that we need programs like TIA. When the program was included in the final Homeland Security Act, it was only partially modified by Congress. But you can bet the farm that it's still alive and kicking.
As Americans, we apparently can't have it both ways. We can't live in an economic and social system where we are happy, safe and prosperous; and within that same system, feel protected and trustful of our government. After all, this isn't utopia. The world is a bad place, and if our government has to snoop on the bad guys, they have to bug the network. We're a part of that network, and become casualities of the annihilation of personal privacy.
The good news is that most of us already know we're being followed. It's only a matter of deciding whether or not we want to look into the rear-view mirror.
Privacy--it's just a word.