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When Privacy Jumped The Shark

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Of course, there are some steps that ordinary Americans can take to cover their daily digital tracks and limit their vulnerability to snooping of all kinds. But there aren’t many. In their new book, Big Data, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier observe that “in the era of big data, the three core strategies long used to ensure privacy—individual notice and consent, opting out, and anonymization—have lost much of their effectiveness.” Their proposed workarounds are laudable—why not have “new principles by which we govern ourselves”?—but not exactly an action plan. Andrews calls for a new “Social Network Constitution” but for the short term points out that citizens of Facebook, the third-biggest nation in the world as measured by population, have “little recourse other than to leave the ­service.” This would require asceticism on a mass scale unknown to modern America.

The easiest individual solutions for trying to protect one’s privacy are the obvious ones. Quit social networks. Stop using a cell phone. Pay for everything in cash (but stop using ATMs). Abandon all Google apps, Amazon, eBay, Netflix, Apple’s iTunes store, E-ZPass, GPS, and Skype. Encrypt your e-mail (which will require persuading your correspondents to encrypt, too). Filter (and handcuff) your web browser with anti-­tracking software like Tor. Stop posting to YouTube and stop tweeting. As Big Data elucidates: “Twitter messages are limited to a sparse 140 characters, but the metadata—that is, the ‘information about information’—associated with each tweet is rich. It includes 33 discrete items.”

So vast a cultural sea change is beyond today’s politics; it would require a national personality transplant. What the future is most likely to bring instead is more of the same: an ever-larger embrace of ever-more-brilliant toys and services that invite more prying from strangers, corporations, and government. No sooner had Snowden’s leaks landed than Instagram, owned by Facebook, announced a new mobile service enabling its users to post their own brief reality-television-style video nuggets much as the equivalent Twitter service, Vine, already does. Soon to ship from Microsoft is a new Xbox game console requiring a device called Kinect, which, besides monitoring bodily motions, listens to users even when the console is turned off. It’s unlikely that fanboys (and girls) will shun the new Xbox any more than they will disdain the intrusiveness of the much-awaited Google Glass. If anything, they’ll fight to be first in line.

Civil libertarians can protest about how the government will track us on these devices, too, but as long as the public and the political Establishment of both parties remain indifferent, the prospect of substantial change is nil. The debate would be more honest, at least, if we acknowledge our own responsibility for our “choices as a society.” Those who complain about the loss of privacy have an obligation to examine their own collaboration, whether by intent or apathy, in the decline and fall of the very concept of privacy. We can blame terrorists for many things that have happened since 9/11, but too many Americans cavalierly spilling TMI on too many porous public platforms is not one of them.


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