Our Age of Paranoia – High, Low, Middle and the Way Forward

September 6, 2006

Three stories in the last two days deserve further examination:

  • Facebook’s deployment of a new “feeds” feature that tracks every change to every user’s profile, and broadcasts those changes to the user’s entire network of friends
  • Hewlett-Packard’s admission that their CEO spied on members of the Board in an effort to determine who was leaking information to the press
  • S. S. 2543, a bill drafted by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Vice President Dick Cheney (R-Mordor), which would instill in the President the right to order surveillance without oversight

These three items throw into sharp relief the current state of privacy in the United States. Working backwards, I’ll try to piece out how we’ve arrived where we are.

Kos, in commenting on S. S. 2543, cites Sen. Frank Church’s (D-ID) warnings of 1975 on the danger posed by the National Security Agency:

“That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.”

He added that if a dictator ever took over, the N.S.A. “could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.”

This is a profound and recurring fear in American politics: a combination of the expansion of executive authority and imposition of a national security state. And it’s no wonder – the United States as originally comprised was largely a response to George III’s absolute authority and impositions of his will on the lives of Americans. It’s where the Bill of Rights comes from, and why such seeming anachronisms as the Third Amendment – “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law” – were deemed important enough to make the Top Ten.

George Washington knew enough of the dangers of concentrated authority to pointedly refuse a crown, and opted to establish a precedent of executives serving only two terms. Critics even within the Democratic Party were unnerved by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s concentration of authority to warn against American dictatorship, and it was Roosevelt’s attempted court-packing that ultimately doomed further expansion of the New Deal. And of course, Church’s fears as cited above came on the heels of Nixon’s broad expansion of authority (outside the law, as it turned out), authority which junior Nixon aide Cheney now seeks to enshrine in law.

Throughout our nation’s history, Americans have rightly feared and guarded against concentration of executive authority for many reasons, but chief among them was always the threat to personal privacy posed by establishing in a single man rights and powers above all other men. That remains the case today.

But there are other erosions of personal privacy of perhaps a far larger scale than a set of centrally-controlled surveillance programs – the development of corporate surveillance systems and scores of overlapping entrepreneurial panopticons.

Corporate surveillance is easy enough to define – your company is watching you. Your company is reading your e-mail. Your company is recording where you go on the Internet. Most office workers are well aware of these realities, and so as creepy as HP’s actions are – they involved “monitoring of board members’ calls from home phones and cellphones in January, an effort authorized by Patricia C. Dunn, the chairwoman” – they are best seen as an incremental shift rather than a sea change, even if they turn out to be illegal. Corporations have long been notoriously secretive in the protection of industry secrets and records.

But what’s an entrepreneurial panopticon?

It’s a service that offers the user a clear benefit – say, online shopping or free digital photo storage – and asks only that the user let it know every little thing they’re doing, which they will in turn broadcast to everyone else willing to pay the same price (*one identity*). Well, it doesn’t ask that in so many words – it’s hidden in the fine print of the User Agreement – but that’s the price a user pays for what in many cases are “free” services. Some examples:

  • Web2.0 enterprises. They rely on users who “provid[e] content AND personal information to for-profit companies for free” and who, in return, receive everything from social networking to photo storage to calendars to anything else
  • Amazon.com and other e-tailers, who track not only their users’ every purchase but every product page visited in order to better “recommend” other products
  • Google and other search engines, who are now advertising total storage of each user’s search history as a feature, not a bug. For the time being, Google is assuring that this information will remain private

In the above contexts, identity is currency, and people are pricing their identities very cheaply. But what’s really interesting is what happens to identity once it’s in the hands of these companies. They keep it, compile it and, because once they have that information it’s infinitely replicable, they sell it.

That’s what’s going on with Web2.0 – these companies are providing a service for a fee (your identity), then turning around and selling their service to other users with the added value of your identity thrown in for the low, low price of – that user’s identity. Sort of like a pyramid scheme where in the end people don’t lose their life’s savings, just their privacy and potentially their identity (which, in turn, could mean…their life’s savings).

But they wouldn’t do that!

Oh, wouldn’t they?

This is what’s going on:

The third generation [of social networking] will expose the history of this visibility. The full history of what you’ve done in the network. A record of how you’ve behaved in the past will be available in the future. This will (and should) affect your behavior and your friend lists and your decision about which pictures to post.

And this is a good thing – as it mirrors the real world. You shouldn’t lie to your friends. As I’ve said before, the real world is a quaint place where actions matter and people remember. It’s also a place where this virtual overlay we’re playing in today will be taken for granted in only a few very short years. The decisions you make online today will, and should, matter tomorrow.

What technology is enabling in this case is the re-emergence of the small-village social dynamic. Until very recently and through most of the history of human civilization, most people in most places could expect to have most of their actions observed by people they knew – people who would in turn quite often disseminate that information (i.e., “gossip”) across the rest of the community, especially if it didn’t conform to community standards. This was an incredibly oppressive way to live for people who didn’t fit into narrow-minded ideas of acceptable identities or behaviors (e.g., women, non-whites, homosexuals, Star Trek fans) but it was an excellent method of social control.

A community panopticon is only oppressive to the extent that community standards are oppressive.

In our more enlightened (er, mostly) times, and with the rise of voluntary communities of shared interest and identity (see: San Francisco), the knowledge that your actions are being recorded and judged according to community standards can be a good thing – it can mitigate against poor decisions and, further, can accrue credit to those who behave in exemplary manners. The latter is the great appeal of many Web2.0 applications and networks – frequent visits and laudatory comments on a blog; becoming a Friendster/MySpace/Facebook “hub”; postive user feedback on Digg; etc.

There’s been a lot of talk about how technology is making the world smaller, and that’s right – and now it’s more right than ever before. Many of us are now living in small villages of our own creation, and more people are moving into nearby neighborhoods every day.

So what to make of it all? I would argue for three kinds of response to these three kinds of intrusion on privacy.

  1. Resist impulses for centralized authority in the hands of a national executive. Very little good and quite a lot of bad has come from these impulses, and no politics has yet produced (to my satisfaction) leaders enlightened enough to be trusted with particularly great authority over their fellow-citizens.
  2. Remain skeptical of corporate security measures but always remember – it’s not about you, it’s just about the money.
  3. Embrace the re-emergence of small-village social organization. For starters, and not that it’s a great reason, but – it’s not like you have any choice. The use of technology to re-establish this elemental means of human organization is an inevitable reaction to the societal upheavals of the last generation, which were key in dashing away many of the vestiges of the old (read: non-voluntary) small-village organization model. More happily, this model of organization has much to offer in nearly every category of human need: friendship and companionship; intellectual stimulation; emotional support; artistic creation; solidarity.

As is often the case when I look to the future, I feel a mix of dread, trepidation and excitement. Some things are too big for us to touch or even see as events carry us forward but I believe that, if we pay attention, we can observe and shape the world as it is re-created around us.

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