I appear to be sleepwalking into my own personal privacy crisis, and to say that I’m nonchalant about it is an understatement.
I don’t think I even knew the true meaning of the word blasé until I started examining my own attitudes to online privacy. After examining those attitudes, I’m still utterly carefree. I find myself totally untroubled by other people having access to my personal information. Knock yourself out, chaps. Help yourself. It’s not a problem, honest.
While this information has been prised out of us by multinational companies with an unquenchable thirst for valuable personal data – the current rate is probably about 0.0007p per cubic tonne, and I reckon they’re coining it – I’ve played my own very important role in all this. I’ve showed total compliance throughout, even when I was warned that my privacy was at stake. Every time Facebook revamped privacy settings and hid them in the third submenu of a subpage of a page I never visited in the first place, I was unconcerned. I embraced services offered “in the cloud” without giving a monkey’s who had access to the data I uploaded. Shortly after reading about the Snooper’s Charter – or, as they will insist on calling it, the Communications Data Bill – I absent-mindedly uploaded a photograph of my credit card to Twitter. And when Google rationalised its privacy policies into a document that EU officials described as “too difficult even for trained privacy professionals to understand”, I think I defrosted the fridge while whistling a selection from South Pacific.
You might think I’m being irritatingly flippant and sarcastic in order to illustrate a point, but the vast majority of us have a collective blind spot when it comes to online privacy issues, and a change in that mindset is becoming less and less likely to sneak on to our to-do list. I worry that my failure to perceive the bigger picture when presented with new evidence of privacy breaches is almost like a mental illness. In the past few days, a leaked series of PowerPoint slides from the US National Security Agency revealed that personal information was readily available to that agency through back-door channels to Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Skype and others – a group of services that account for the vast majority of online communication.
The program that facilitates that collection, Prism, apparently contributes more information to the US President’s daily brief than any other source, and yesterday we heard that the UK’s GCHQ has also had access to the system since June 2010. In other words, even if we could be bothered to read the screeds of terms and conditions that are presented to us when we sign up for these services, it wouldn’t make any difference to our privacy, as the NSA and GCHQ could help themselves anyway.
The story contains some problematic contradictions, not least because the services themselves vehemently deny that they’re involved in any such scheme, maintaining that any requests for data have to come through the courts. But what’s fascinating is the marked contrasts in people’s reaction. People who are exercised by privacy issues greeted the news with horror, pointing out – probably quite rightly – that this level of surveillance would have been something that the East German Stasi or Romanian Securitate would have thrown parties to celebrate. The “what if” scenarios they present all deserve to be taken seriously. What if a flippant remark you made was misconstrued, or a joke taken out of context? What if data about you that’s held by a current government passed into the hands of a future administration, perhaps a totalitarian regime? Are your views sufficiently bland to be ignored by someone who might be tasked with digging dirt on you? But Prism, whatever it actually does, has been far from universally condemned. Many people across the political spectrum seem to think it’s a good idea.
Most of us, however, remain magnificently ambivalent, thanks to online services that have managed to convince us that information sharing equates to fun, convenience, prudence. I no longer regard targeted adverts as creepy, even if I’m aware that they relate directly to the “private” email that they sit next to on my computer screen. I figure that I’d rather see adverts I’m interested in than ones for chairlifts, or negligees. Photos I’ve taken and stored online along with location data don’t make me wonder whether my movements could be analysed by a third party. I just enjoy the pretty map with all the pins in.
I’ve bought into information sharing so hard that the notion of GCHQ having access to my instant message conversations only just registers on my list of concerns above the presence of moss between the paving slabs on my front doorstep. And I promise you, I’m not even stupid. I know that, in theory, the people best equipped to protect us from data collection are the government, but the people who stand to benefit most from accessing that data are the government. But still I don’t care. I’m not dismissing the privacy campaigners as paranoid; I’ve just reached a level of acquiescence from which there’s no going back.
If anyone ever reminds me of that quote from General John Stark, the celebrated soldier of the American Revolution – “Live free or die, death is not the worst of evils” – I’ll say, well, to be honest, I think death’s probably worse. But I respect your view. I guess.