If you're in the mood to worry about a technological apocalypse, there's no shortage of imminent disasters to hang your hat on, tinfoil or otherwise. An enemy-launched electromagnetic pulse in the upper atmosphere that zaps us back to the Stone Age, self-aware nanotechnology suddenly turning on its creators, drug-resistant super bugs that someday soon will learn how to make antibiotics obsolete — all are scary and, while a few among the growing stack of dire predictions may be entirely possible, some are massively overstated and most will never amount to more than a Y2K-style anticlimax.
But don't rest too easy. There's a real tech-based 5-star threat that's aimed at you, personally, and it's much closer to home than you may realize: The decaying state of personal privacy and the ever-expanding set of tools (both human and electronic) that are watching, tracking, and probing your every move.
More than ever, it seems like almost everywhere you look, there's something looking back. Think of your online life this way: Imagine for a second that the place where you live has no shades or curtains on the windows, the walls are paper-thin, the locks all pop open at the slightest nudge, the peephole in your front door looks in instead of out, and many of your neighbors are nosy, gossipy, sketchy, and anonymous. In a place like that, someone you don't know could be watching or listening to everything you do; maybe they're watching right now or, even worse, maybe they're recording you.
The sobering fact is, your Internet service provider, your favorite search engine, your social networking site, and other e-destinations know a lot more about you than you think, and remember: the Internet never forgets.
The biggest push behind the current tech-driven privacy invasion probably comes from one key fact: Personal data is the new gold rush. With about 70% of our economy now driven by consumer spending, it's understandable that specific information about those consumers and their shopping habits has become a smoking-hot commodity.
Every detail of what you buy, and when, and where, and how often, and why, online and offline, can be used to target advertising, track trends, and even predict future behavior right down to the individual.
How do they get this information? Mostly, they just listen. People with a lot of Internet-connected gadgets in their lives are more likely to be leaking secrets like a rusty sieve, and if you don't pay much attention to protecting your privacy, your own computer may be making you a lot more vulnerable than you'd like. The first mistake is thinking of the many joys and conveniences on the Internet as "free," when we all know that nothing of any value comes without a cost. In many cases, little bits of your privacy are given up to marketers who pay the freight for your Web-surfing in return for what they learn about you.
The Wall Street Journal recently published a study of the top-50 sites and the number of tracking tools they deposit on your computer while you're reading a news story, shopping, or even just looking up a word in the online dictionary. Only one of these, Wikipedia, left your computer alone during your visit. The most aggressive site (a popular dictionary) left behind 234 little digital files to track your activities and target your ads accordingly.
On some level, we're well aware that all kinds of subtle, creeping invasions of our personal space are happening, and that they're happening everywhere. You don't even have to read the fine print in that cell-phone agreement, social Web site, cable/DSL/Internet terms-of-service, credit application, GPS/geolocation app, browser toolbar, RFID tag, tollway transponder — or even in your employment contract — to realize that you've actually consented to being watched from some hidden vantage point for much of the day.
That's right: whether you remember doing so or not, in one way or another you've agreed to trade out your privacy, a little at a time. But it's not just the advertisers you should watch out for. Privacy concerns extend far beyond marketing.
For example, recently a Pennsylvania school had provided over 2,000 students with laptop computers to help with their homework. Software was pre-installed to allow school officials to activate the Webcams of these computers, wherever they were, presumably for anti-theft purposes. It was later alleged that tens of thousands of photos and screen-shots were secretly taken, of a number of students, in the "privacy" of their homes, without their knowledge, for purposes that had nothing to do with the original intent.
The government is taking advantage of emerging technologies as well. In many parts of the country, you can already incur a number of different kinds of traffic tickets and tollway fines based purely on photographic or electronic evidence. There have been reports of local authorities using Google Earth and StreetView images to search for permit violations and other punishable infractions without the need for an on-site inspection.
And let's not forget the actual criminals. Thieves, bullies, and cyber-stalkers often don't even have to resort to hacking skills to steal passwords, hijack accounts, or harass their victims. If you're not careful, that anonymous "friend" on Facebook or follower on Twitter can gain access to sensitive information that you'd never dream of giving them if you saw them face-to-face.
The real danger is that someone, somewhere, is able to build a very detailed picture of you and your activities from all the tiny bits of innocent information you give out on a daily basis. This picture amounts to that "permanent record" you were always threatened with in school. It didn't exist then, but it certainly does now. By giving up these little parcels of your privacy, you're creating that permanent record, and not only that — you're also creating a chain of evidence that could convict you of crimes that may not even exist yet.
Here's a small example, with potentially large implications.
It's been proposed that tiny radio tags (or RFID chips) could soon be attached to all the products we buy. From your credit-card records, the powers that be already know what you buy, and where, and how often, but with these new tags they could also know what you did with what you bought. This technology could be used to track compliance with any number of current and new regulations. Sound outlandish? The city of Cleveland is rolling out a program of "smart" trash bins, designed to tattle on you if you don't roll your recyclables to the curb on a regular basis. The automatic fine is $100 per infraction.
Let's say, in a new green economy, certain kinds of light bulbs, packaging, foods, appliances and other materials are mandated to bring the average carbon-footprint within a government-enforced range. By knowing what you buy, and how often, and what you throw away, your obedience to these regulations is recorded and actionable. They don't even have to take the time to go through your trash to assess your penalties; it's all done electronically, and automatically.
In a nationwide, government-supervised health care system, it's not impossible to imagine that "healthy" behavior would be encouraged (and compliance somehow enforced) in order to control costs and manage limited resources. If you've been ordered by your doctor to watch your weight, cut back on your drinking, or quit smoking, but the self-supplied evidence in your permanent record suggests you've been cheating, who knows what the results could be? You could see your health care "tax" skyrocket, you could lose your place in line for an expensive drug or procedure — in short, your life could become a much lower priority in an already overburdened system.
You don't know where all this information is, who controls it, who shares it with whom, much less how it will all be used in the future. History has taught us this, however: for every benefit you receive from these new technologies, it's likely something of greater value is being taken away, with or without your knowledge.
Much like liberty, privacy is easier to give up than it is to win back again. The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects was important enough to earn a top-5 spot in the Bill of Rights. That alone should be enough of an endorsement to justify some daily care to preserve that right — to safeguard your permanent record — even though you've got nothing to hide.
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