Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Price of Privacy

            What do you think of Edward Snowden? 

            I’m talking about the bespectacled gentleman who broke the news that the NSA is keeping tabs all of us. You could reduce his actions to a simple – “Well, he betrayed his country, allowed our enemies access to national security secrets, so send him up the river for 20 years.” You’d definitely have a point.

            On the other hand, most great political and social changes have originated with rebels who decide their government, or its methods of ruling, are detrimental to the welfare of its citizens.

            Those who opposed the Vietnam and Iraq wars are now seen to be on the side of the angels while the “patriots” who sent American kids halfway around the world to be maimed and slaughtered are discredited.

            If nothing else Snowden’s case once more highlights the fact that when governments accrue great powers - allied with breathtaking technical tools - they will use them. Remember the smirking face of Donald Rumsfeld at televised news conferences as he extolled US firepower during the first  “surgical strikes” on Baghdad.

            We watched in fascination as offending targets were pinpointed and summarily destroyed much like in a video game. No mention was made, however, of the many innocent people who died in these assaults.

            The bottom line is – if the NSA has the power to vacuum great quantities of phone and internet data, it will; and, given the right set of circumstances, that information will be used for political purposes. And I’m not talking Republican/Democrat here. President Obama shows every bit as much zeal in maintaining a secretive and burgeoning national security apparatus as his paranoid predecessor.

            Had Snowden not blown the whistle, none of us would have been any the wiser about the sheer extent of government surveillance. No one is saying that a tap shouldn’t be put on potential suicide bombers or the like, but there was a time when you needed a court order to do that - and that system worked well.

            But Snowden has only touched the tip of the intrusion iceberg.  Take Google, and in particular its Gmail service. Ever notice just how the various advertisements that appear on your social media pages are so tuned into your interests?

            Oh man, have they got me down! Ads for Celtic Rock, Manchester United, and pale ales, appear with numbing regularity; of late, however, offers of cures for alcoholism and flagging sexual interest have caused me deep concern. Does Google know something I don’t?

            Recently I’ve been inundated with ads for Gilt? Never heard of it? Well, neither had I, but it’s an online outfit that can garner you large discounts on brand clothing. Now I’ve never bought an article of clothing online, so was wondering if Google had finally hit a wall. But, lo and behold, turns out I had loaned my computer to a friend and, upon inquiry, discovered that like any respectable young metrosexual he visits everyday.

            It’s a crazy ever-morphing world. The very concept of privacy is out the window in most people’s lives. Take the twin phenomena of reality shows and Facebook. In a mad lust for celebrity many are willing to abase themselves before millions on television, while most others share intimacies online that would have appeared shocking a decade ago.

Many people under 30 find this all this quite normal. Few care that if you put something up on Facebook you are granting the company the right to exploit that information for commercial purposes.

            Why get upset? Everyone else is doing it, and besides it doesn’t cost anything. In the end, however, privacy will cost - and a lot. For many of us have already made a pact with the digital devil – if I use your free services I hereby grant you the right to exploit me in return.

            That difficult but perceptive man, George Orwell, must be groaning in his grave. Not only has 1984 come to pass but, hey, we’re all down and dirty with it.

            That’s why I think Edward Snowden is much more saint than sinner; I would even venture to call him a citizen visionary. He has seen the future and is prepared to do something about it.

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