Who the Hell is Digital Privacy About?!?

This may sound absurd to some of you that either speak with me on a regular basis, or that have been reading this blog or others that I frequent on a regular basis: I sometimes struggle to offer a concise, clear, sound answer to this post’s topic.

I don’t necessarily see this as a failure, but (perhaps as a self-defence mechanism) more as proof that I need to work on condensing my ideas into ‘bite-sized’ fragments that I can then build the big picture from. I know, it sounds silly easy but I often have problems condensing problems to make them immediately approachable to other. So, you ask me, why do I persistently worry about privacy in the digital space? Common reasons why individuals aren’t concerned with their privacy follow (in no particular order, and not a comprehensive list):

  1. If it means that business can make things cheaper than me, then who cares?
  2. If it means that my children are safer, or that criminals are more effectively prosecuted, then who cares?
  3. As long as it doesn’t interfere with my daily life, then who cares?
  4. If I have nothing to hide, then what do I care?
  5. If it safeguards me from terrorism, then who cares?
  6. If it only affects people in other nations, then who cares (more of an American position, but it’s important to deal with)?

I can’t spend too much time on these, but I want to address most of them, in part so that I can steal from this post in the coming weeks.

Answering ‘Common’ Questions

The Scare of Personal Harm

Businesses profit from our online activities – by monitoring what we do they can more effectively determine our preferences and, more importantly, can develop increasingly powerful digital composites of our lives. These composites are very valuable – they hold tons of personalized information, that can be sold to other corporations, who in turn profit from reselling that information. That information is, generally, available to whomever has the money. It doesn’t really matter why prospective buyers want the information – once they get their money they’re happy to turn the data over. This has, in the past, led to rapes, murders, and other nefarious actions being carried out because criminals gained access to enough information that they could effectively find, stalk, and terrorize/injure/kill their victims.

The Safety in Surveillance

That’s all fine and good but really, doesn’t the collection of people’s digital profiles let the police more effectively identify and track potentially dangerous criminals? In light of 9/11 the US government has been in the habit of buying personal portfolios from private companies and then amalgamating that information with governmental information – this lets government bodies develop ever-widening truly expansive digital profiles. In theory, this is to help combat terrorism and crime, but the statistics of how digital portfolios have genuinely helped remains hidden from public eye. What the public does see is the massive racial and religious profiling that these portfolios facilitate, with individuals being denied the liberty to travel on the basis of a computer portfolio that they have no access to, have not legitimized the collection of, and are unable to effectively remand.

Who Care About Others – I Only (Really) Care About the Kingdom of Me!

Chis, you’re saying, this is fine and good, but it doesn’t affect me – my daily life isn’t impacted by these portfolios you’re talking about. Hell, it benefits my life by safeguarding me from threats and reduces the cost of goods because corporations know who is buying what. My response: your life is being impacted, but in ways that you aren’t necessarily aware of. Any idea why you were given the interest rate that you were on a recent credit card? Do you know why, exactly, you were given preferential treatment at a restaurant? Any idea that the ‘helper’ at Walmart was sent because your behaviour was identified automatically by a computer as being suspicious? Were you detained (however briefly) because your name happened to match a criminal, a match that hasn’t been corrected after months and months of trying? Sure, all of these seem minor…individually. What it amount to, though, is a loss over control of your personal information.

Death by Binary Papercuts

One or two dents in the armour of privacy are going to happen, regardless of the law that is developed and (most importantly!) enforced to safeguard people’s privacy. People don’t often suffer egregious violations of privacy by legitimate corporations – instead they suffer privacy invasion by a thousand pin-pricks that ultimately amount to (what may seem to be) truly invasive privacy breeches. That it is a host of different, individually nearly insignificant, invasions is important – when you suffer one massive invasion you have a target that can be met with the force of law. When there are thousands of different groups with pieces of information on you, most of whom you’ve never heard about let alone know how to contact, you face a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare – you can’t identify who knows what about you and, as such, who is transferring what data about you. Your efforts to find out just lead you in circles, circles that you have to navigate on your own dime and time. The classical problems of privacy stem from Big Brother situations (where all your actions are monitored and controlled) and invasion cases (where privacy is solely identified as when someone discovers something about you against your desires) but the privacy concerns in digital environment are more expansive than just these two models.

Sorry, Wrong Department and the Terror of Public Norms

With the advent of digital technologies, and the ease of transferring data almost instantaneously, I think that the issue isn’t that the classic analogies have vanished but that they have receded into the background as the dominant concerns relating to digital privacy breeches. These ‘classic’ models are being supplanted by this death by a thousand papercuts, where individuals experience a sense of helplessness and, subsequently, shame that they cannot stem the wide-scale bureaucratically driven transfer of data-shards. Who knows that I switched to diet coke after I started trying to cut down on calories? How would I even find out? If I do, how to I stop the sharing of that data, along with a host of other consumer habits that allow corporations to target me with unwanted advertising? What if I only want to stop some companies from having access to my data, but not others? How does that work? Who can I contact in government that can assist me in a timely manner? Can anyone? What if I don’t want people knowing certain things about me, because I secretly think that they deviate from public norms? Maybe I should just adjust my behaviour – it’s not a major change, after all, and it’s better to be on the safe side (and not experience feelings of shame) rather than have others potentially learn about my innermost desires . . .

Being Exposed by Global Corporation, Ltd.

The aforementioned questions are the ones that emerge when critically evaluating digital privacy. Yes, the historical problems of data breeches will be aggravated by the new modes of data-transfer, but the wider issue that faces us in the digital era stems from the undisclosed transfer of data-shards without our legitimized consent, shards that reveal more about us to more people than we are comfortable with. Our lives are being exposed at mind-numbing speeds, and we don’t even know what technologies contribute to that exposition – our politicians either can’t figure it out or are being ‘handled’ to not investigate it, corporations are spinning the technologies so fast the the globe is rotating faster than ever before, and people who caution about the possibility of privacy breeches are cast aside as scaremongers.

So to get back to this post’s title, what the hell is digital privacy about? It’s about being concerned about the thousand pin-pricks that leave us vulnerable, afraid, and helpless to faceless data collectors that are leveraging our own data against us without our ever knowing. It’s about being interested in citizens retaining control over the information society, rather than the society controlling us. It’s about being able to actively engage in society without fear that the discourse one engages in will be scooped up by a data aggregator, and sold to the highest bidder without our ever consenting to the theft of our identities.

It’s about being concerned with who controls me.