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.