Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Are we there yet Orwell?

I'm not going to lie, George Orwell's 1984 is one of my favorite books of all time, and has probably served as my most useful literary tool throughout my life. I liken it to a kind of "Matrix Decoder" in which the subtle uses of propaganda, surveillance and intimidation by both the state and the corporate hierarchy become more easily recognizable.

So, how close are we to Orwell's 1984? And in what ways? What has significantly changed in recent years - and therefore brought back Orwell's dystopian vision as a popular topic of discussion - is the incredible advancements in technologies that allow for unprecedented violations of personal privacy. What Orwell did not predict however, was the ways in which corporations would become perhaps an even greater threat to privacy than government ever could...and those violations would be easily and readily given up by the populace.

These questions are posed in a recent article in the Daily Princetonian, entitled "What would Orwell Do?".

Brian Kernhigan writes:

The surveillance I have in mind is not governmental but commercial. The march of technology has given us ever smaller and cheaper gadgets, especially computers and cell phones, and pervasive communication systems, notably the internet and wireless. As an almost accidental byproduct of this progress, we have voluntarily given up an amazing amount of our personal privacy, to a degree that Orwell might well have found incredible.


So phone companies know where your phone is. Would they reveal that information? As I write this, we have just learned that Verizon employees have been checking out President-elect Barack Obama's cell phone records. Clearly this was unauthorized, but it's not hard to imagine ways in which your physical location could be used commercially, for example to send location-dependent advertising to your phone. Would you be willing to let the phone company use your location in return for lower rates or a sexier phone? Experience suggests that most people would be quite happy with such a trade - privacy is good but it is often given away or sold off quite cheaply.


On the internet, students are astonishingly willing to broadcast the most intimate details of their lives on myspace.com and facebook.com, though this pendulum may be swinging back as it becomes clear that more than just your friends are watching: Prospective employers check out candidates, as do college admissions offices.


...That led to a discussion of whether the benign uses of cookies outweigh their privacy-invading role of monitoring what sites you visit. Most people seemed a bit taken aback at all of this, and I'll bet that a fair number of cookies were subsequently deleted. This is one place where you can recapture some privacy at no cost - if you stop accepting cookies from third parties (the advertising companies), the web keeps right on working.

Scott McNealy, at the time CEO of Sun Microsystems, once said "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." Sadly, it's pretty close to true these days. The remarkable thing is that we seem to have given it away, and continue to do so, for pretty much nothing at all in return. Orwell could have written a book about it.

I will be the first to admit that I have fallen prey to giving up too much of my own privacy, and too freely. This is partly why I think this is an especially important topic to discuss and contemplate. I am a firm believer in the use of public policy to make it easier for consumers to "do the right thing" and the "desired thing" - which most people would agree is making it harder for ones privacy to be breached and easier to understand how to prevent it.

Click here to read this article in its entirety.

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