Friday, May 28, 2010

Modern Privacy

The death of privacy has been announced many times, and while there are still ways to keep your personal business to yourself (mainly through use of cash instead of credit cards and transponders), the trend has become clear: in the modern world, you are expected to give up your privacy in exchange for convenience. As Kevin Drum puts it (after a discussion of the true purpose of those awful supermarket "loyalty cards"):
In the future, the poor and middle class will essentially have no privacy in their day-to-day life. They will have sold it away, because in practical terms the poor and the middle class simply can't afford to give up a 5-10% discount on everything they buy. Only the better off, who can, will have the option of maintaining their privacy.
Maybe this is OK. I don't like it, but plenty of people seem fine with the idea. But there's a reason that all this information is so valuable, and it's not because marketing firms and consumer goods companies are genuinely interested in your welfare. This is a brave new world we're stumbling into.

Ain't that the truth. A co-worker was just telling me this morning about new software that can search all of the audio files on a computer and identify which ones contain any word you like. Of course this software was developed by the military, so it could even identify the desired word in multiple languages. There are thousands of examples like this one.
My point is that living in this electronic wonderland has its costs. Turning everything into ones and zeros not only reduces possibilities for ambiguity (just ask those who prefer albums to CDs; those poor, neglected Luddites) but also increases the potential for controling not only the data but also even the potentialities of how it can be used and controlled. It's almost quaint sounding now, but Thomas Pynchon, far-sighted as always, sounded the alarm back in 1997 in his excellent introduction to Jim Dodge's Stone Junction. Here's a taste (although you should read the whole thing):
The other day in the street I heard a policeman in a police car, requesting over his loudspeaker that a civilian car blocking his way move aside and let him past, all the while addressing the drive of the car personally, by name. I was amazed at this, though people I tried to share it with only shrugged, assuming that of course the driver's name (along with height, weight and date of birth) had been obtained from the Motor Vehicle Department via satellite, as soon as the offending car's license number had been tapped into the terminal -- so what? ...
One popular method of resistance was always just to keep moving -- seeking, not a place to hide out, secure and fixed, but a state of dynamic ambiguity about where one might be any given moment, along the lines of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Modern digital machines, however, managed quickly enough to focus the blurred ellipsoid of human freedom even more narrowly than Planck's Constant allows.
Equally difficult for those who might wish to proceed through life anonymously and without trace has been the continuing assault against the once-reliable refuge of the cash or non-plastic economy. There was a time not so long ago you could stroll down any major American avenue, collecting anonymous bank checks, get on some post office line, and send amounts in the range "hefty to whopping" anywhere, even overseas, no problem. Now it's down to $750 a pop, and shrinking. All to catch those Drug Dealers of course, nothing to do with the grim, simplex desire for more information, more control, lying at the heart of most exertions of power, whatever governmental or corporate (if that's a distinction you believe in).

It's not one I believe in, and why I try to remain as private as I can, although I'm as bad as anyone since i'm not currently willing to give up the convenience of my FastLane transponder, or the savings that come from my "loyalty card."

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