How to resist Big Brother 2.0

May 17, 2012

The ubiquity of digital gadgets and sensors, the pervasiveness of networks and the benefits of sharing very personal information through social media have led some to argue that privacy as a social norm is changing and becoming an outmoded concept. In this three-part series Don Tapscott questions this view, arguing that we each need a personal privacy strategy. Part one can be read here, and part two here.

As the Net becomes the basis for commerce, work, entertainment, healthcare, learning and much human discourse, each of us is leaving a trail of digital crumbs as we spend a growing portion of our day touching networks. The books, music and stocks you buy online, your pharmacy purchases, groceries scanned at the supermarket or bought online, your child’s research for a school project, the card reader at the parking lot, your car’s conversations with a database via satellite, the online publications you read, the shirt you purchase in a department store with your store card, the prescription drugs you buy – and the hundreds of other network transactions in a typical day – point to the problem.

Computers can inexpensively link and cross-reference such databases to slice, dice and recompile information about individuals in hundreds of different ways. This makes these databases enormously attractive for government and corporations that are keen to know our whereabouts and activities.

George Orwell’s iconic text Nineteen Eighty-Four described the dystopian society where a totalitarian state rules in its own interests and everyone is under constant surveillance by authorities. This situation was often correctly alleged about the totalitarian East Bloc countries during the Cold War. It is unfortunately increasingly true of Western democracies today. In the name of national security, governments are collecting real-time information from us, sampling phone calls, emails and social networks, and taking our biometrics at airports and a growing list of other places.

We have little idea what governments are doing with this flood of personal information. And the aftermath of 9/11 should remind us just how quickly our civil liberties can be undermined in the name of national security.

Recently the New York Times reported that: “Law enforcement tracking of cellphones, once the province mainly of federal agents, has become a powerful and widely used surveillance tool for local police officials, with hundreds of departments, large and small, often using it aggressively with little or no court oversight.”

The Times reports that this practice has become big business for cellphone companies, too, as carriers market a catalog of “surveillance fees” to police departments to determine a suspect’s location, trace phone calls and texts, or provide other services.

Sure, you could argue that it’s becoming difficult to restrict the information that governments can collect, and yes of course we need to be vigilant about how that information should be used. But we still need to resist attempts of governments to collect unnecessary information. We still need to fight for the basic privacy principle of “data minimization” – of limiting the information collected to clearly definable and socially helpful purposes.

There should be no tapping of phones or anything else without due process. If a government agency proposes setting up a video camera in your neighborhood, you need to decide if the benefits of possible crime reduction outweigh the possible dangers of unknown governments being able to watch you constantly.

Or increasingly, governments want to collect biometrics information about you – like fingerprints, retinal scans and even DNA. We each need to make choices. Sometimes this benefits you with better government services or faster movement through airports. But what are the long-term implications should a government agency or individual become malevolent? The average person must be cautious and vigilant, and even resist the collection of unnecessary personal information.

To me, it’s not so likely that the future will resemble Orwell’s 1984, or Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison, or an East Bloc police state during the Cold War. Those are dystopic models from another era that depended upon a single, all-knowing malevolent power seeking control. The appropriate metaphor for the growing loss of privacy today is found in Frank Kafka‘s The Trial: The central character awaits trial and judgment by an inscrutable bureaucracy for a crime that he is not told about, using evidence that is never revealed to him, in a process that is equally random and inscrutable. In like manner, we, too, will be judged and sentenced in absentia by unknown public and private bureaucracies having access to our personal data. We will be the targets of social engineering, decisions, and discrimination, and we will never really know what or why.

In the private sector, companies want to know more and more about what makes each of us tick – our motivations, behavior, attitudes and buying habits. The good news is that companies can give us highly customized services based on this intimate knowledge – and build trusting relationships. Sometimes it is great to have highly customized ads. I don’t want to hear or see car ads except when I am interested in buying a new car. When I am, I would like to advise the car companies to bring it on! And as the Net becomes part of almost everything we do, the possibilities are limitless for fabulous, customized value for each of us, courtesy of the corporate world.

But there is a dark side. Companies can use our personal information to our disadvantage. Some of these are rogue “bad actors.” In the Rupert Murdoch tabloid scandal in the UK, cellular phone company technicians could sell the location of a specific phone. This way Murdoch’s reporters could track down celebrities.

Now, imagine a world where corporations have near-perfect information about each of us. As the aphorism goes, “knowledge is power.” Could companies go beyond fairly influencing us to being able to manipulate us? Could they abuse their detailed knowledge and cause us to purchase goods or services or take other actions that are not in our interests?

We already live in a consumer society where people go into debt to purchase things they really can’t afford. If corporations had information about our every purchase, articles we read, movies we watch, things we say, places we go, food we eat, medications we take and “big data” from myriad other sources, how could they use that asymmetrical power to advance their interests against ours?

Sometimes the information is used in a very roundabout way. Drug companies buy information from pharmacies about the medicines doctors prescribe to their patients. That way they know which doctors to target for their advertising and promotional campaigns, in the hope that the doctor will prescribe different drugs.

So, given that there are few controls and even fewer companies that practice “privacy by design,” it makes sense to be cautious about what information you provide. Don’t fill out warranty cards. A warranty is valid whether or not you fill out a card. They simply provide information about you to companies. Refuse junk mail, and take time tweaking your spam filter. Don’t let a merchant copy your driver’s license. Never give out your Social Security number unless it’s legally required. Make sure that online forms are secure. Don’t automatically consent to the collection, use or storage of your personal information. Question why people want your personal information. Make it clear that you do not wish your information to be disclosed to any third party. There are many things you can do, while we wait for companies to change how they treat our data.

Moreover, the information you provide has value – to market researchers, advertising companies, social networks and other online platforms. But most companies disagree that individuals own the rights to such information, since people provide the data for free or nearly free. The entire value of Facebook, estimated at $100 billion, for example, is the knowledge it has of its users: their likes and dislikes, what they say, what they do, where they shop, who their friends are, and so on.

The degree of detail Facebook has is mind-boggling. Facebook does not pay users any money in exchange for this information. Facebook insists that it provides a superior service as a result and that the service is sufficient payment. The same is true of Google. It prides itself on its accurately targeted advertising, for which its advertising clients pay top dollar. None of this money is shared with Google’s users, however. If they are selling your information without your permission, they are depriving you of the opportunity to capture that income yourself.

The situation becomes more grim when companies exchange information with one another or with different arms of the same corporation, taking a series of seemingly simple isolated acts and compiling them into a detailed profile of an individual’s behavior. Google recently announced it would share information across its search engine, YouTube downloads, Gmail use and more than 50 other separate services the company provides. Again, this is done so that Google has as detailed a profile of individuals’ behavior as possible so that advertisers will pay more for the possibility of influencing your behavior.

If history is any guide, advances in privacy have tended to arise in the wake of widespread privacy abuses – for example, the negative effects of mass printing presses, the emergence of the fascist state, and the abuses of credit reporting companies in the 1960s. Something similar may be happening today with data breaches and identity theft “in the cloud,” as more and more people come to understand the pain and consequences of personal data misuse.

By all means, be as open as you want, but realize that with openness can come vulnerabilities, especially for your children. “Discretion is the better part of valor,” to borrow Shakespeare’s thought, and that means it makes sense to be careful in the face of unintended consequences and risks.

PHOTO: A row of security cameras in central London, November 2, 2006. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

18 comments

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Well, Prof. Tapscott, it’s fifteen years since I first read a sky-is-falling article about evil governments and Internet privacy, and I’m pretty sure it’s fifteen years since you did too.

In that time, I can think of no instance where my government or any law-abiding company has misused information about me. (I don’t know about your country, but in mine selling information without my permission is a criminal offence, not just a lost opportunity for income.) Can you?

However, merely by observing the spam and unsolicited phone calls I get from share boiler room operations, fake companies and advance fee fraudsters, I estimate that criminals misuse this information about two or three times every day.

You’re worrying about the wrong thing.

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

We used to fear Big Brother ‘the government’. In reality, it is Big Brother the ‘private sector’. I believe the true catastrophe is where the two collude (think Homeland Security).

‘Discretion is the better part of valor,’ How about during exchange of ideas in comment sections such as this? Are we to become afraid of talking? Loose lips sink ships? Big Brother is watching? At least we have lots of ‘Soma’ to pop. Thanks to the drug companies research and marketing into depression.

Posted by SeaWa | Report as abusive

Prospective stratagems for maintaining a degree of privacy:
Use currency no larger than a 20; reject the electronic in any capacity; let your ID be stolen and re-stolen; perform your own cosmetic surgery; sleep very long hours.

Posted by Blackorpheus | Report as abusive

If our governments were doing what we willingly are enabling Facebook to do, people would be rioting in the streets.

Posted by allevate | Report as abusive

Thanks for this article. I’ve been saying for several years that Big Brother is already with us — and isn’t the government. I suspect the government has some scruples remaining about citizen rights to privacy; so far as I can tell, corporations have none.

Posted by tejh | Report as abusive

re: tejih “…government has some scruples remaining about citizen rights to privacy; so far as I can tell, corporations have none.”

Bingo. My confusion is “WHY ?!” Government is made up of individual people (employees and voters), and corporations are made up of individual people (employees and stockholders). Why do masses of individuals under the guise of the private sector tend to act with no moral compass, while at the same time applying morality to government?!

Posted by SeaWa | Report as abusive

What a great article.

Also another thought to juxtapose here: The current rapid evolution of corporations into being the highest form of superorganism on Earth.

The number and size of corporations is growing quickly and globalization is the overwhelming force. Almost all large American orporations are no longer American, but rather multi-national. For example IBM now has more employees in other countries than in America.

The same goes for large corporations in Japan, Germany and France. They are quickly evolving into multinational corporations, with legal and ethical responsibility to no country, only to their shareholders.

Of the roughly 250 nations on Earth, many have GNP smaller than Exxon’s. Exxon operates in almost all of them, selling its products, and easily asserts legislative influence upon their governments.

In a sense, governments the world over are becoming smaller, while corporations are quickly growing more powerful. The internet has greatly accelerated this trend.

Government branches in all major countries are becoming emasculated or subsumed by fast-evolving corporate superorganism.

Revolving doors with corporations exist in virtually every branch of government in every country. Through these revolving doors, corporations are usurping government agencies ever more adroitly.

Looked at that way, the SEC is not really part of government, but rather a branch of the securities industry. Its employees don’t work for the goverment, but rather they report directly to the corporations themselves.

The same is happening in all branches of all governments in all nations. Now, Don Tapscott’s ideas can be applied in this venue, where we have good reason to fear the most aggressive superorganisms, operating without control, across all national boundaries.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

@Ian Kemmish:
I think your post is more wishful thinking than sober analysis. Governments and corporations do have a track record of abusing private information. Consider the News of the World fiasco in the UK. Gossip-hungry newspapers paying to know the whereabouts of celebrity cell phones. Police selling such information to tabloid journalists. What we see today is just a hint of the things to come. Citizens must adopt personal privacy strategies to minimize the amount of information that is available about them.

Posted by DTapscott | Report as abusive

I want the ability to see my ‘records’, and control them. I want my records to be my legal property.

it seems to me all the talk about ‘privacy’ and ‘anonymity’ is a red herring. If any data is compiled about a named person, it is a piece of their reputation……subject to fair use, and existing legal protections come into play.

Let all this data be in the form of named records, owned liked medical and tax records, ……..by the individual

Posted by Robertla | Report as abusive

I don’t agree with everything is said here by the professor Tapscott but I appreciate that he takes the opportunity of the meeting of Rio +20 questionning again big brother. It is true that three events were quickening the world watching.
1) terrorism
2) climate change collection of the data
3) growth of internet till the facebook synthesis
And those events have occurred whithout any production of nothing for ten years. No production and even stagnation of the growth. We have been caping our productive forces because runnning to the concentration of the data.

Posted by meleze | Report as abusive

I work in the over-arching industry known as IT and everything Mr. Tapscott says should be taken very seriously.

My rule from day one when I first gained access to the Internet in 1996 was NEVER put personal information on a website. Not the one you own, and certainly never on someone else’s, like social sites.

To answer Ian Kemish’s question, all you have to do is run a simple search on your favorite search engine to find hundreds of cases of mistaken identity causing innocent people serious problems and even their arrests and in some cases, their death. The “no-fly” list being the most visible example.

Posted by LBK2 | Report as abusive

I don’t have a cell phone, never did. Don’t use Twitter, never have. Never even visited Facebook, never will. And proud to be in the minority amongst all the sheep.

Posted by sjtom | Report as abusive

Reminds me of Stasi in Germany. It could easily turn into this due to the fact theat people will easily sell each other out in the future for personal reasons. Mass amounts of data will be kept on people, already done in some part by Lexis Nexis, the NSA and the FBI. But the social networking sites and mobile phones take it to the next level. Now they can extract your entire life if they so choose. The government already has informers from everywhere, so there could be close to 1 – 2 million or more “informers”, which would make it very easy to track a small group of individuals around 100 – 200 per each “informer”. Hardly a difficult task.

Posted by loginwithfaceb | Report as abusive

It is certainly very debatable that there are any significant benefits to permitting the Government to aggregate and correlate data. And it is very, very easy to stop. Simply stop paying the “public servant” who violates data retention rules and the two supervisors above him from the date of infraction, and force repayment of all sums paid.

If you pay a reward for unmasking data violators, perhaps 20% of the money forfeited, this scheme will work well.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

Great article, canceled my credit cards months ago, but keep one for reservations, which I hardly ever make.

Don’t use facebook or twitter, have a mobile GPS unit(no name attached),but outside of canceling my internet and using cash only, this is all I can do.

So sad how the world has changed, anyone can see we’re hurtling toward a not so pleasant ending.

Posted by mick68 | Report as abusive

It is obvious from the derelict DOJ that we need cameras on the bureaucrats and politicians, not the citizens of the United States.

Posted by happydance | Report as abusive

I having trouble with login today.

Login form says it does not recognize my ID in some areas and provides no response either positive or negative.

This is a test.

Posted by LBK2 | Report as abusive

This comment is interesting: “Moreover, the information you provide has value – to market researchers, advertising companies, social networks and other online platforms.”

All data on real human interactions is extremely valuable now. See http://www.payanywhere.com

Posted by MerchantMaster | Report as abusive