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Is Privacy Really A Priority?

Would you be willing to get rid of your smartphone to protect your privacy? What about e-mail, would you close your account if it meant that you could be certain that nobody else (corporate or governmental) could read your messages? Would you be willing to swear off social networking in order to extricate yourself from a closely scrutinized network? Might you consider only going on-line in “privacy mode” (and only using browsers with “privacy mode”)? What about only going on-line for a very particular purpose and getting back off-line as soon as the task was accomplished? Would you keep your phone turned off except when you actually needed to use it?

While the above questions are purposely antagonistic, the basic notion at the core of these queries is: would you be willing to give up technologically enabled convenience for the sake of privacy? After all, it is much more difficult to continue to spy upon people who are not actively assisting the watchers. Granted, “more difficult” is not synonymous with “impossible.”

The questions regarding “would you be willing to give up” are an important – if seldom mentioned – corollary to the ongoing revelations about the NSA’s actions (not to mention the ever changing ways in which tech companies seek to harvest and harness your data). Amongst the most recently disclosed stories is the detail that the NSA is able to scoop up user data from Yahoo and Google. While the importance of this story should not be minimized, it nevertheless seems worth remembering that this is not the first NSA leak to suggest that the NSA has gotten information from those tech giants. Frankly, just because Yahoo or Google or Facebook claim a sort of monopoly on the data that you allow to flow through their services should not be overly comforting. The main difference between a tech company spying on you and the government spying on you is that in one case it’s a company that shrugs at demands for privacy and in the other case it’s the government that shrugs at demands for privacy.

Thus we return to the question of what constitutes an appropriate response. The rallies and actions called by groups like Stop Watching Us (who held a rally in Washington D.C. on  October 26, 2013) are an important element of a response, insofar as they publicly dramatize the demand. Yet a nagging question lingers about such demonstrations: how many of the attendees brought their smartphones with them? How many of the attendees posted to Facebook (or some other social networking site) that they were going to the event or in attendance? How many people organized their carpools through e-mails that flowed through Google or Yahoo? At risk of being accused of fear mongering (what we’re aiming for is to be “critical thinking mongering”), the NSA probably knows the answer to those questions.

Some may harbor fantasies of a Luddite (or Neo-Luddite) response to the technological apparatus that has so empowered agencies like the NSA and enriched companies like Google; however, it is doubtful that many people are prepared to take a sledgehammer to their electronics (that’s at least five massive revelations away). That there are tools and resources that people can use for protecting their privacy whilst using technology is obvious; however, the shutting down of Lavabit should serve as a reminder that all of these services are simple bandages on a festering wound – it may temporarily keep things from getting worse, but for how long? And that’s still quite the wound. It is in this context that it is worth considering a line from Langdon Winner’s book Autonomous Technology, where he writes:

“There is a point, after all, where compliance becomes complicity.” (Winner, 322)

This comment should act as a sharp kick to anybody who is concerned about the NSA (or tech companies) surveillance capabilities but is unwilling to seriously consider altering their behavior in using technology. At this point, based on the revelations that have been made public thus far, to still be using the Internet and electronics blithely is to an extent to be complicit in your own surveillance. Likewise to still be using Facebook or Google or Yahoo or [insert the name of another social networking site you use] is to be complicit in the company policies that violate (and systematically redefine) your privacy; just as buying an iPhone 5 makes you complicit in giving biometrics a sneaky way into public life.

Certainly, we live in a technological society, where to swear off technology may render one an “outsider” and result in one being sectioned off from much of “what’s going on” (if all of your friends communicate on Facebook and you leave Facebook there are likely social implications); however, rallying in the streets without being willing to think seriously about acts of media refusal is to be failing to fully think through the solutions. Rallies and petitions are all well and fine, but it may be more effective for Stop Watching Us to begin organizing mass boycotts of the tech companies that have enabled the NSA. These companies throw a lot of money around in Washington D.C. and if angry tech users start harming the companies bottom lines we might see such companies begin to put actual pressure on the government beyond the comical “outrage” that comes from the corporate spokespeople when a new revelation hits the news. Nevertheless, even should that come to pass we should not be too trusting, (Winner again) for:

“We may firmly believe that we are developing ways of regulating technology. But is it perhaps more likely that the effort will merely succeed in putting a more elegant administrative façade on old layers of reverse adapted rules, regulations, and practices?” (Winner, 320)

In other words…perhaps you really do need to consider getting rid of your smartphone. Or at the very least, perhaps you really need to think through this matter. A critical thinking tool that can be of great value when contemplating technology is to run any technology through the contemplative gauntlet of Neil Postman’s Six Questions for Technology (to which this writer has affixed a seventh question) as elaborated by Postman in his book Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. While thinking through these questions regarding a particular technology is always useful, perhaps what is needed is a slight reworking of some of these questions so that they better target us as individuals. After all, the first question:

“What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?” (Postman,  42)

provides a fair amount of wiggle room for individuals to pull themselves out of the equation and instead focus upon some abstract societal issue that a technology could be seen as addressing (and in a technological society it seems that “life in technological society” becomes a “problem” for which a given technology may be “the solution). Yet it is in a deeper consideration of Postman’s fourth and fifth questions –

“What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?” (Postman, 45)

“What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?” (Postman, 45)

– that it becomes evident how badly we need to rework that first question. The recent news stories have made it undeniably clear that the answers to the fourth and fifth questions involve the NSA and information hungry tech companies, and the new problems and gathering of ever greater “economic and political power” demands a reassessment of the first question. Indeed, it seems that the first question in our current context should clearly read:

“What is my problem to which this technology is the solution?”

While Postman’s second question should be changed to:

“Is this really my problem?”

While it is always valuable to think critically about the world – and about technology – the answers we arrive at to these questions must compel us to some type of real action in our own lives as regards our technology usage, otherwise we risk remaining “complicit.”

Consumer electronics and the Internet provide us with an infinite circus (one that we can use to order and easily pay for bread), but the acrobat doing flips high above the ground is named privacy and this acrobat keeps crashing to the floor. And thus we return to our original line of questioning: would you be willing to give-up any of your technological devices to protect privacy? Would you be willing to, at least, alter your technological usage for the sake of privacy? If the answer to both questions is “no,” than it is time to stop feigning surprise and outrage when these technologies are used against you. The acrobat named privacy won’t stop falling to the floor because we demand the ringmaster install a safety net, it will stop falling when we insist that privacy should not be on the trapeze.

And when we leave the circus.

Related Content

The Triumph of Technique – The Logic of the NSA

Surveillance Fever!

A Prequel to 1984…

The Panoptic Con

Paranoia is not a Tactic

“More than Machinery, We Need Humanity”

Works Cited

Postman, Neil. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. Vintage, 2000.

Winnger, Langdon. Autonomous Technology. MIT Press, 1989.

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

17 comments on “Is Privacy Really A Priority?

  1. Paranoid Paul
    October 31, 2013

    As someone who has changed their habits due to privacy concerns over the past few years and attended the Stop Watching Us rally in D.C., I found your piece very compelling. Without delving into wearisome minutia some of these changes include canceling my cell phone plan, switching to a GNU/Linux Operating System, deleting my Facebook and Google accounts, communicating more in person, and reaching out to educate others about privacy issues.
    It is important to note that I am a young male student without commitment to a family or a full-time career. I emphatically agree with the points you raise but is important to note that by matter of circumstance, individuals are variably equipped to make the changes necessary to preserve their privacy. In my privileged position I am more able and willing to experiment with drastic changes such as giving up my cell phone. For better or worse, communications technology has become essential to participating in the workforce of our society. You cannot reasonably expect an on call doctor to give up their cell phone or pager, or a journalist to refuse to use email, or a grad student not to use online academic databases. Nor can you reasonably expect people to change their jobs in order to increase their privacy. The public must be made aware of their complicity in business models that destroy privacy, but the transition to technology that works for us rather than for corporate and government interests will take time. Consumer technologies and the Internet are not merely infinite circuses, but essential parts of our economy and larger society. They are too important to abandon wholesale. The ability and rate of which individuals can make this change is dependent not only on their motivation, but their socio-economic circumstances. There is only so much change you can expect from the public before it becomes victim-blaming.
    To give you some insight to the Stop Watching Us rally let me describe my experience. As someone who has had a lifelong interest in technology and has been following the increasing invasiveness of private and public actors in the realm of Internet privacy, the Snowden revelations were a tipping point. I acknowledge that I was (and to a lesser extent continue to be) complicit in activities that contradict my ideals. However, seeing the scope of intrusions prompted me to act and accelerate the privacy-increasing choices I made. I have written my elected representatives, informed others about the implications of technological choices, and supported open source projects that provide alternatives to privacy-incompatible corporate services. Deciding to attend the rally was just another tool to promote activism.
    I’ll admit there were twinges of paranoia and I asked myself many of the same questions you posit in your fourth paragraph. In signing up for a carpool I used a disposable email and a fictitious name. I did not bring a cell phone or discuss my intent to attend through digital means (aside from arranging the carpool). I wore a hat and sunglasses partly because of utility but also to gain a modicum amount of anonymity. Who can really know to what extent these measures were effective (or that describing those measures here won’t compromise them even more). In deciding to go to the rally, use the Internet, write my congressmen, or even donate blood, I have given up some of my privacy in order to do what I believe is worthwhile and effective.
    Those who organized the rally through social media did a public service by sacrificing some of their privacy to spread the message. Usage is consent is complicity, but sacrifices (such as using Facebook and email to organize) are needed especially in this nascent stage of awakening the public to demand more privacy. Abstaining networked digital technology is not the answer to the problem (we wouldn’t even be having this discussion). We cannot reject the positive opportunities created by this technology but we can and must play a role in reshaping its implementation and function.
    *Submitted through TOR

    • TheLuddbrarian
      October 31, 2013

      Greetings,

      Thank you for your well reasoned and thoughtful contribution. As I stated in the second paragraph of the above post, part of my purpose was to be “purposely antagonistic.” I certainly recognize the challenges you discuss, and wholly agree that in a technological society to be able to “opt-out” is in and of itself evidence of privilege. The hope of the above post (and of most of the content I write on this blog) is to encourage people to think critically and engage critically with the technology that they use. I agree that we can not swear off modern electronic/digital technology, but neither can we (I’m using the general “we” here, not targeting you) continue to not think through the implications of the technology we use. I believe that your excellent comment points the way towards many of the solutions: TOR, GNU/Linux Operating System, thoughtful consideration of social media — and many of these are changes that would not be too onerous for people to make. We need to continue this conversation about the way in which we use technology in the hopes that it will drive technology in a more fruitful direction (towards “democratic technics” instead of “authoritarian technics” to use Lewis Mumford’s terminology). Thank you again for your insights!

      – Zachary
      The Luddbrarian

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  3. Pick Technologies
    November 4, 2013

    good stuff

  4. cristyparkersmith
    November 9, 2013

    I really don’t care who watches or listens to me. I personally have no desire to spy on anyone but to each his own. In my opinion it’s just not worth arguing over. If you don’t want anyone to know something about you don’t let them know. That said, if you’re willing to trust your secrets to technology then they’re obviously not that important to you anyway.

    Someone once said something about this that has stuck with me for years.

    “They can’t hack your mind.”

    Ultimately you are the one in control of your own personal privacy. The fear mongering is perpetuated by people and organizations who want you to think they’re more powerful than they really are. They’re only as powerful as you allow them to be. Don’t ever forget that.

    • TheLuddbrarian
      November 9, 2013

      Greetings,

      Thank you for your comment, and contribution to this discussion. I think that you raise some excellent points, and while I don’t necessarily agree that “if you’re willing to trust your secrets to technology then they’re obviously not that important to you” I agree with the general sentiment that a secret funneled through technology is probably not going to remain secret. That being said I think that it is important to recognize that we live in a society made up of many (many) other people — and the only way that you can truly remain in total “control of your own personal privacy” is to sit in a darkened room alone for all eternity (without anybody knowing that you’re there). The moment you encounter other people or move about in the larger world “your own personal privacy” is impacted by other individuals and the larger society. For example: you don’t need to use an ATM, but if you walk by it than it has likely captured you on its camera. Certainly people are in control of what they share and what technology they use, but by participating (to any extent) in a larger society our “personal privacy” gets bound up in systems beyond just our control.

      While there are certainly organizations and groups who “want you to think they’re more powerful than they really are” it remains important to recognize that this does not mean that they aren’t powerful. Saying a bear weighs 1,000 pounds when it really weighs only 800 pounds is an exaggeration, true, but getting bit the 500 pound bear is still dangerous. Ultimately it is not that “they’re only as powerful as you allow them to be” but that “they’re only as powerful as our society allows them to become” – the NSA’s growth is not the result of you or me or one or two other individuals but a result of a larger societal shift that has allowed for a greater concentration of power in the hands (and hard-drives) of these organizations — and this trend is bending in the direction of such organizations becoming more powerful, not less so.

      If your sentiment is that we can take the power back, and that we need to accept responsibility as a society, than I would wholeheartedly agree. Yet these organizations are powerful, and this is not a power that can be disrupted just because a single individual decides to stop trusting their secrets to technology. The problems we face are societal problems and they require societal solutions, individual action is important but if it leads to one sitting in a darkened room isolated from the rest of the world it is not very useful. This is precisely why the first step we need to take is moments such as this where we challenge one another to think through these implications — as it is only as a society that we can begin to work our way out of the situation that we, as a society, have gotten ourselves into.

      Again, thank you for your comment.

      – Zachary, The Luddbrarian

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This entry was posted on October 31, 2013 by in Activism, Big Brother, Civil Liberties, Ethics, Government, Privacy, Society, Surveillance, Technology, The Internet, US Politics and tagged , .

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