Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Truthout op-ed: "The Death of Privacy: Technology and the Challenge for Social Activists"

An op-ed today on Truthout.org delves into both the pro's and con's of our rapidly advancing information and communication based culture, and the increasingly difficult challenge that this advancement presents privacy and social advocates with. As I have often written here, our regulatory framework simply has not kept pace with technological innovation, and this has left gaping holes in our privacy protection infrastructure...leading to a vast array of threats to our civil liberties and more general freedom(s).

At the same time, these technological innovations have also led to a host of positive developments. In the case of Web 2.0 for instance, outside of the obvious benefits of social networking, we have also seen how it helped circulate abuses by the Iranian government during their recent election protests. Similarly, as the author also notes, the ability to film live action with our phones led to a much better understanding of the incident at an Oakland BART station in which police shot and killed a youth in what appears to be in an almost execution style manner (the courts will decide this still).

Another example cited by the author, and with which I agree (though there is a downside too), is the way in which these video technologies have allowed the public - in a number of instances - to document evidence of our political leaders "saying what they think" while not realizing that it would show up on computers around the country within hours.

Examples include McCain's "Bomb Iran" and former disgraced Senator Allen's use of a racist slur in describing a non-white individual in the crowd. Certainly in the case of Allen this helped ensure he was not re-elected...and our nation is better off because of that.

As this article delves into, this conflict between the pro's and con's of technological development is a complicated one, and the very definition of privacy in today's world is changing...as well as making life more and more difficult for privacy advocates.

For instance, on the flip side, we've got this news: In-Q-Tel, "the investment arm of the CIA", has a program that crawls "over half a million web 2.0 sites a day, scraping more than a million posts and conversations taking place on blogs, online forums, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and Amazon...Then Visible "scores" each post, labeling it as positive or negative, mixed or neutral. It examines how influential a conversation or an author is."

Uh oh...

Tolu Olorunda, a cultural critic whose work appears regularly on BlackCommentator.com and TheDailyVoice.com, writes:

There is something immeasurably insidious about a government that spies on its citizens. And if there is one universal truth, it is that no country has a monopoly on such activities. Whenever a ruling class, from whatever region, begins to feel threatened by the unforeseen, emerging independence of the underclass, one of the next steps taken is to monitor conversations, document strategies and invade privacies. It's an inevitable impulse that bears witness to the fierce determination of Struggle.

So, it should surprise no one that In-Q-Tel, "the investment arm of the CIA," is enlisting the services of Visible Technologies, a software firm notorious for monitoring social networking activities. Noah Shachtman, contributing editor to Wired magazine, reported this new discovery last week.


It's key to reject the politics of fear at a critical time such as this. Activists, throughout history, have always understood that fear is perhaps the single most destructive force in any movement. Fear of surveillance, fear of coercion, fear of arrest can extinguish all moral vigor from the most courageous of men and women.

It's easy, following news of the CIA's latest intentions, to shut down one's social networking accounts, or begin engaging in self-censorship. It's easy to cower before the great walls of intrusion. But it's also easy to see this for what it is: a desperate attempt to keep track, and possibly mitigate, this prestigious moment in history - when a growing, global citizenry is beginning to understand that information shouldn't always be funneled to fit a particular narrow interest, that, as Patti Smith once sang, "people have the power" to change the conditions that surround them; that without engaged activism, without accountability brought to bear, without a demand, power would concede nothing - not even the privacies of everyday people.

Click here to read the article in its entirety.

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