Privacy is a Sci-Fi Fantasy

The assault on personal privacy has ramped up significantly in the past few years. From warrantless GPS tracking to ISP packet inspection, it seems that everyone wants to get in on the booming business of clandestine snooping -- even blatant prying, if you consider reports of employers demanding Facebook passwords prior to making hiring decisions.

What happened? Did the rules change? What is it about digital information that's convinced some people this is OK? Maybe the right to privacy we were told so much about has simply become old-fashioned, a barrier to progress. In search of an answer, I tried a little thought experiment. Follow me, if you will, on a journey to a place in the space-time continuum I call the Land Before the Internet...

Through the looking glass
One bright sunny morning in the Land Before the Internet, you go on a job interview. You're smart, skilled, motivated, and clearly destined to be an asset to any company that hires you. During the interview process, however, just as the HR manager begins to discuss the benefits package and salary, basically communicating that you have the job, he pauses.

"Oh, and we have a few procedural things to take care of," he says. "We'll need to assign a goon to follow you around with a parabolic microphone to listen to all of your conversations with friends, and we'll have a few more follow your friends and family around to see what they're saying."

He continues: "Also, we'll need full access to your diary, your personal records, and your photo albums. In fact, we'll need the keys to your house, so we can rifle through your stuff to see what you have tucked away in the attic and whatnot. We will also need to do the same to all your friends. I assume that won't be a problem?"

Just across town in the Land Before the Internet, a few officers in the local police station are bored, so they assign a few cruisers to shadow people at random, for an indefinite period of time. They pick names out of the phone book -- selecting citizens who've otherwise raised no cause for suspicion -- and follow them, simply because they can.

The cops meticulously document the citizens' comings and goings, creating a very detailed report on their daily lives, complete with where they go, how long they stay, and when they return to their homes. They note when they go to the doctor, where they pick up their kids, everything. They maintain the tail for months or longer, then keep these reports forever.

It turns out that the police in the Land Before the Internet aren't half as busy as the employees at the post office, who've been opening and reading every single letter you've sent and received -- or the people at the phone company, who are assigned to listen to every phone call you make and transcribe the contents for easy search and recall at a later date. You could avoid their prying ears by speaking in code, but this would be documented as an attempt to evade eavesdropping, which is clearly an indicator that you're engaging in some sort of nefarious activity. For instance, you might infringe on a copyright down the line, perhaps by singing a few bars of "In the Year 2525" to a friend over the phone.

Welcome to the twilight zone
Of course, these upside-down horrors are unimaginable in real life. The idea that the post office or phone company would snoop is just crazy -- except it's pretty much what the major ISPs are now volunteering to do. Police stalking innocent citizens could never happen in the United States, at least not without a judge's approval -- unless it means sticking GPS devices on their cars. And under no circumstances would we allow the prospect of gainful employment to be contingent on the abrogation of someone's personal privacy -- but we might need to examine your Facebook page.

These invasions of personal privacy are occurring now because they're suddenly very easy to accomplish. The rapid advancements in processing power and storage have opened the door to the wholesale collection and storage of vast amounts of data that can be indexed and tied (however loosely) to individuals. There's no way that any of these entities would have the means or personnel to do this Big Brother nonsense physically, but once those communications occur over the network, they think they're fair game.

There are many instances where digital surveillance is a good idea and essentially required because of the medium: people working on highly secure defense projects, those working with sensitive information for corporations that could be a target of corporate espionage, and obviously those in positions that require interaction with information on private individuals that should not be disseminated. The use of digital monitoring and data collection is very important in these places.

Further, if you're employed by a company, using corporate resources, you relinquish some right to privacy in order to protect the company from internal sabotage or damages that might ensue from vital internal planning, innovations, or intellectual property falling into the hands of the competition. In short, if you're at the office running your mouth on Facebook and IM about sensitive internal information and get fired for it, it's your fault. You're unlikely to get fired for bitching about your ex-husband to a friend in an IM from your work PC, but don't be surprised to know that your conversations are being monitored and recorded in an effort to crack down on the former.

However, that should not extend beyond the office or into your personal time and space. Invasive digital eavesdropping and coerced access to private social networking applications is an absurd example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In an effort to find the needle, we're burning down the haystack.

This story, "Your privacy is a sci-fi fantasy," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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