In my earlier post on initial impressions of Edward Snowden as a Rorschach Test (and from the comment thread and other highly emotional discussions I’ve heard online and offline, it is indeed that), I mentioned that a byproduct of the debate over NSA data-mining would be greater reflection on private-sector data-mining, which is more visible and and at least theoretically voluntary. Ross Douthat penned a column yesterday that nicely summarized the basic issue:
[I]n the early days of the dot-com era, what people found most striking about online life was how anonymous it seemed — all those chat rooms and comment sections, aliases and handles and screen names. A famous New Yorker cartoon depicted two canines contemplating a computer, as one promised the other, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
This ideal of anonymity still persists in some Internet communities. But in many ways, the online world has turned out to be less private than the realm of flesh and blood. In part, that’s because most Internet users don’t want to cloak themselves in pseudonyms. Instead, they communicate in online spaces roughly the way they would in a room full of their closest friends, and use texts and e-mails the way they would once have used a letter or a phone call. Which means, inevitably, that they are much more exposed — to strangers and enemies, ex-lovers and ex-friends — than they would have been before their social lives migrated online.
It is at least possible to participate in online culture while limiting this horizontal, peer-to-peer exposure. But it is practically impossible to protect your privacy vertically — from the service providers and social media networks and now security agencies that have access to your every click and text and e-mail. Even the powerful can’t cover their tracks, as David Petraeus discovered. In the surveillance state, everybody knows you’re a dog.
And every looming technological breakthrough, from Google Glass to driverless cars, promises to make our every move and download a little easier to track.
Those (including many libertarians highly agitated about the “surveillance state”) who make a sharp distinction between public and private surveillance–the former representing an oppressive quasi-totalitarian entity with guns, and the latter the fruit of market forces and voluntary contracting–may not find this kind of discussion meaningful. But the rest of us may not quite so easily understand why the surrender of privacy to promote the development and marketing of goods and services is less objectionable than data-mining under court supervision (however loose) to assist in the prevention of terrorist acts. More to the point, it may seem futile to imagine the state can be perpetually denied access to information that corporate entities collect, sell and trade.
And that gets back to the question that will inevitably color this entire “scandal:” if privacy in traditional sense of the term has become a largely anachronistic expectation, who do you trust, and who do you fear? Ask yourself and others that question, and the answers will in most cases determine reactions to the current controversy.