The government’s internet surveillance proposals have provoked a storm of protest from across the political spectrum. Personal privacy and its protection always arouses strong feelings. At least, it does when the threat to it comes from the state.
But there is something odd going on here. Despite the vehemence of our opposition to state surveillance, we have, over the past five years or so, seen the surrender of personal privacy on a massive scale. I was going to say ‘voluntary surrender’ but ‘involuntary’ is a better word because most of us have done it without thinking.
We have signed up to social media platforms which track the sites we visit. We use search engines which build up huge databases on our internet activity. We download ‘free’ phone apps which record what we do and who we contact. Not only that, we happily share all sorts of personal details with these organisations. From casual asides in online discussions to pictures of drunken antics on social media sites, we are putting enough stuff out there to enable anyone with an interest in doing so to build up detailed pictures of our lives.
And there are quite a lot of people with an interest in doing so. Google seems to be collating information on just about anything it can get its hands on. Facebook is doing something similar. Ostensibly this is for targeted advertising but who knows what other uses they might find for this data? Perhaps more immediate, and more sinister, is the interest employers taking in people’s online activities. The technology enabling them to cross-reference information from different sites is improving all the time. There are even companies who will do it for them. Firms like Social Intelligence work on behalf of employers, credit rating agencies and insurance companies. They compile profiles by aggregating users’ internet activity. Apparently, Social Intelligence can even link online pseudonyms to their real-life owners, so if you are running an anarchist website under the name Peter Kropotkin but you are really an investment banker called Giles, you could be in trouble with your employer.
The key difference between data compiled by the state and the private sector is that your participation in the latter is voluntary. No-one is forcing you to share data with online service providers. You could avoid having your data tracked by not using search engines and social media sites.
But is that really an option now? Most students are on Facebook and they seem to use it to organise their entire lives. Not being on Facebook would be social suicide. Something similar is happening in the business world with LinkedIn. If you don’t have a LinkedIn profile you’re almost invisible. The only people I know without them, or who have very sparse profiles, are people who have worked for large corporations for many years. (You can always tell when they are planning to change jobs because their near-dormant accounts suddenly become very active.) Not having an online presence probably wouldn’t do you much good anyway. Any graduate without a Facebook page would be considered a bit weird. An executive without a LinkedIn profile would be thought a bit behind the times. So are our online footprints really voluntary? Or do our social and cultural expectations now effectively force us to participate?
I am as worried about private sector surveillance as I am by that of the state. At least the state has some level of accountability. We are, in theory, entitled to know that we are being monitored, while we have no idea what private companies are tracking and what they are doing with the data. I also, as I have said before, have doubts about the capacity and capability of the government to create the database state of dystopian fantasy. (Though I did sign the petition against ID cards.)
Those with long memories will recall the black-listing of left-wingers by the Economic League in the 1980s, something which most of us thought was a thing of the past, but which, apparently, still goes on. It is quite possible that internet surveillance might be misused by the state. But but its use by private companies will affect the lives of a lot more people. You may never know why you didn’t get that job, or why you were turned down for a loan, or why you were refused insurance. Private companies are private. They don’t have to tell you. It may simply be that you, involuntarily, gave them the data that sunk you.
When the state plans to monitor our data all hell breaks loose yet when private companies do so, not only do we not protest, we happily collude with them. The contrast between the outrage provoked by state surveillance of the internet and the cheerful surrender of privacy to the private sector is curious. It’s also something some of us may live to regret.