Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The New Privacy

I really thought everyone already knew about the Patriot Act. A series of documents released over the last two weeks only confirmed what was already known from the legislation itself — the U.S. government is collecting comprehensive transactional information about citizens’ activities in every communications medium from web searches to library books, and collating it to find out who has interests and activities in common. This is something that started, quite illegally, years before the legislation that enabled it, which is why parts of the laws are retroactive.

Or that’s the way I saw it. But to many others, the thought of a massively powerful organization tracking their keystrokes comes as a revelation. I hope that the eventual conclusion of this public conversation is that the kind of private lives people enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s went away more than a decade ago. With current technology, that kind of privacy would be impossible, even if the U.S. government were abiding by its constitution. The old privacy has been replaced by a new kind of privacy, the privacy that comes not from not being observed, but from being relatively harmless, from not wanting to rock the boat or to overtly threaten the entrenched interests of the rich and powerful.

That is not to say that the rich and powerful have us all under their thumbs now. They can watch us but they will never understand us — not until it is too late, that is. They have nightmares about change coming at them from out of the blue, and that is what they watch for, yet unexpected change keeps coming, and there is no end to it.