Three revelations in the news have me thinking more pointedly about privacy as of late. It is clearly an issue that is troubling the public at large as well as law makers and governments. Simultaneously, however, it seems to be largely out-of-sight, out-of- mind. The prying eyes aren’t something we have a direct awareness of and so don’t actively consider. This is something entirely unique to the modern age (though not unique to the internet).
I recall watching movies like Braveheart, shows about the Roman Empire, and even books like Pillars of the Earth and imagining what it would be like to be a serf or a poor farmer. You’re living season to season, day to day, surviving on the land. You would be completely at the mercy of the seemingly colossal powers that be, of whom you probably knew very little about. There was most likely very little opportunity for upward mobility and your fate was almost entirely in the hands of those few elites. At any time you could be relieved of your land through an act of malice or just as an incident of collateral damage of a conflict which you didn’t have any meaningful stake in.
This thought frightened me because it gave me a sense of complete helplessness. Out in the open, largely isolated, I was at the mercy of the weather and my fellow man. Contrast this with the situation we face here in middle class America. We are almost entirely free to pursue greater wealth and wellbeing and, for the most part, there is solid enough infrastructure to help us retain these fruits. We are blest to live in one of the most just and egalitarian societies in the history of the world. And yet, we face the some of the biggest technological, moral, and governing dilemmas we as the human race have ever known. The higher our technological advancement takes us, the farther we have to fall. There is, after all, an equal and opposite reaction (or consequence) for every action (or benefit) we take.
Ours fears are no longer always tangible and readily evident but hidden and seemingly undetectable. This is where two of the aforementioned new stories come into play. The first isn’t more than two days old. It was recently written by a handful of major new organizations that the Ukrainian government started using the GPS tracking present in all smartphones to track and intimidate protesters there in a very invasive and personal way. While the protests started as predominantly peaceful exercises of free speech, they have turned violent in recent weeks as the government has employed aggressive dispersion tactics. It has now turned to unwarranted gathering of GPS data to send targeted messages of intimidation to protesters through their phones.
We are all aware of the fact that our phones make our whereabouts traceable at all times but don’t have evidence to suggest that knowledge is being used without our consent for illicit reasons. The actions of the Ukrainian government, however, are a frightening and sobering premonition of how this type of information can be (and is) abused. As revelations about the NSA have pervaded the media it is evident just how much covert data mining the government does. The situation in Ukraine shows us the next step in what is already a troubling trend of unlawful surveillance by large corporations and government bodies.
So we’re somewhat aware of the inherent privacy risks in technologies that incorporate some form of connectivity, but what about technologies that allow even unconnected devices to be spied upon? This hypothetical is now a reality with recent revelations about C.I.A. technology indicating that they now have the ability to spy using radio waves. Provided they can insert a USB drive or other form of connection into the computer in question, the C.I.A. can gather information by receiving and sending radio waves from the transmitting device from up to six miles away. The bottom line is that unconnected no longer means unhackable. This is a frightening revelation in itself and I’m sadly confident that this technology will only advance in its sophistication. Tech companies have been building backdoors into the safety measures of their software for years at the behest of the government and it’s not unthinkable that this trend could extend into the realm of hardware as well.
J. Edgar Hoover
With these revelations in mind, I’d like to bring in the third which is quite an exposé. Over 40 years ago on the night of March 8, 1971 a handful of burglars broke into a F.B.I. office and took with them boxes of documentation revealing a small part of what would turn out to be a lengthy history of illicit spying and dirty trick intimidation and coercion. They released the documents to news outlets and the information became a catalyst for widespread revelations and reforms in the F.B.I.
These less than savory methods started during the reign of longtime F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover. A perniciously vindictive and obsessively secretive man, Hoover had been running almost unfettered surveillance operations and intimidation campaigns against activists, politicians, celebrities, and other civilians for decades. Surprisingly, the vast majority of people had no idea that activity of this kind was present in society in such a very real, deep, and invasive way.
It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that the identities of the men and women responsible for the leaks were revealed. They managed to evade discovery until now, over four decades later, in a time when their deeds are primarily viewed as laudable rather than criminal.
The timing, I believe, is very important for two reasons. First, it reminds us that this is not the first time that abuse of power in terms of information collection has occurred. The only difference now is that the access and volume of information readily available to large governmental bodies has grown exponentially. Spying methods like wire taping are starting to pale in comparison to other techniques.
Second, it reminds us that these relatively faceless organizations are populated by individuals with the same human flaws and weaknesses as the rest of us. In other words, it means they collect information that don’t have permission to, for reasons they shouldn’t, and they sure as hell aren’t going to be the ones to reveal this. Furthermore, we have to seriously consider how much we value a government that is truly by the people, for the people and not one that is merely in place to monitor and manipulate. Do we really want to rely on the illicit (but undeniably beneficial) tell-all actions of a handful of information thieves (e.g. Edwards Snowden) to facilitate an argument for institutional transparency?
I think not. Not unless we want to experience that age old saying “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone” in a very real way. Freedom, after all, isn’t free.