Whatever high crimes and misdemeanors the National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden may or may not have perpetrated, he has at least in one regard done us all a favor. He has reminded us that we are all victims of unwarranted and inexcusable invasions of privacy by companies who collect our data as they do business with us.
Some, like Google and Facebook, pose primarily as software companies when their main revenue source, and their main business, is to mine data and sell advertisers access to customers. We knew this already, of course, though it seems many of us would prefer to forget the true nature of the technology firms that have boomed in the last decade. Seduced by their dazzling baubles, we have bought in to Big Brother without truly understanding the true price we are paying and will continue to pay for access to their brave new world.
We may take pity on the idiot schoolboy who uses expletives on Twitter or posts a picture of himself holding a joint at a party only to discover when he looks for a job that a trawl by an HR department has made him unemployable. But even smart people — like the New York mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner, who sent lewd pictures to strangers — can remember too late that in this wired world we are all being recorded all the time. Yet there is little legal protection from abuse by the companies who collate our personal data and store it for eternity.
One likely outcome of Snowden’s leak will be that the federal government has to justify its intrusions and maybe even show a prima facie case against an individual or groups before it gathers their data. There is no such move to ensure that pernicious data mining for commercial or private purposes will be similarly controlled. Primitive tribesmen, on seeing a camera for the first time, often balked at having their picture taken for fear it may steal their souls. Using the Internet is the same, except we know for certain that the price of going online is to lose all shred of confidentiality.
The record of internet companies who ruthlessly peddle our private concerns and personal details to advertisers is hardly encouraging. Every time a social network changes its inaptly named “privacy” policies, always by way of “explanation” in the finest of fine print littered with incomprehensible Orwellian “Newspeak,” it compromises our private lives even more aggressively.