A Requiem for Privacy Lost

Updated on November 2, 2019
Jennifer Psallidas profile image

Tech has made our lives more convenient. What do we trade in return for our data? Bid a fond adieu with me as I mourn privacy lost.

Creepy logo of the Information Awareness Office, an agency reportedly scrapped by the US government.
Creepy logo of the Information Awareness Office, an agency reportedly scrapped by the US government. | Source

“It is with knowledge of the human being, his tendencies, his desires, his needs, his psychic mechanisms, his automatism as well as knowledge of social psychology and analytical psychology that propaganda refines its techniques.”

— Propagandes, Jacques Ellul

What is privacy, and why should we care? More and more, people are comfortable living their lives quite publicly. Social media gave us an avenue to connect with old friends and share, which I happily embraced by posting many pictures of my cats, my kid, and my cooking.

I've been on Facebook for ten years now, and sometimes cringe at the "On This Day" memories. No longer do the actions of the present disappear into the annals of time. Our day-to-day banalities are digitized and exist forever.

I now know details about people I haven’t seen in years, sometimes quite intimately. And while I love the feeling of community and easy access that technology provides, I find it unsettling that anything I've done in the last 15 years can be digitally "remembered" fairly quickly, and by a host of stakeholders. My phone company, my phone manufacturer, any app I've downloaded has varying degrees of access, and the National Security Agency all know where I go, who I speak to, the messages I send, and the schedule I keep on my calendar.

In the early '90s, my only worry was about my jealous boyfriend looking at my beeper. When I got my first cell phone in 1994, carrying it with me was just a night thing for safety. Today's tech is sophisticated and collects information about my life that is fueling a multi-billion dollar data industry. Healthcare insurance companies collecting data off the Activity Tracker on my Apple watch are using it to inform how they will treat me as a customer. My '90s-era boyfriend stalking me drove me nuts but at least he couldn't refuse to cover my pre-existing condition because I missed three fitness classes last week.

Devices and apps that geo-locate us have made our lives more convenient in myriad ways which seem innocent enough. But how these conveniences affect us and what we are trading in return for it are another matter entirely. Average Americans—or perhaps more importantly, Congress—are not prepared or well-educated enough to understand how AI will change us in the years ahead. It has already changed us profoundly.

DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), an arm of the military that develops emerging technologies, has been psychologically profiling Americans and developing specific communication designed to infiltrate and disseminate propaganda to influence public opinion.

With the passage of the Patriot Act and it's unholy follow-ups, the Protect America Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, both the Bush and later, the Obama administration, widely expanded government power without the consent of the people or Congress.

The Protect America Act, ironically named, was enacted to protect the phone companies from being sued by Americans for giving the Bush administration access to all our phone records thousands of times a day, dating back retroactively to 1983. Warrants are no longer necessary for searches. Our 4th Amendment protections, so well-thought-out by the forefathers, were axed without a word to the public.

Of course, a New York Times journalist discovered what was going on in 2005 and though the Times initially suppressed the article at the behest of the Bush administration until after the election. Once it was revealed in December of that year what the executive branch was doing, the public was fed the usual rhetoric about patriotism, safety, and country. At the same time as they promised AT&T and the rest of their corporate comrades immunity from civil action.

Shady business got even shadier when the Inspector General's investigation into NSA mass surveillance produced a report that was conducted as a panacea for public outrage. And rather than bore us with the usual redacted glory reserved for declassified documents, they made up a second, shall we say... scrubbed report and passed it off to the public as the real one.

So today, I give you this requiem, an homage if you will... let's have a toast to privacy lost, and remember fondly Mr. Bush in his ten-gallon hat at the Crawford Ranch, and Mr. Obama whose beautiful speeches I sorely miss, even if he was a two-timing son-of-a-gun who sold us out with a smile.

With a 2013 budget request of approximately $10.8 billion, the NSA is the second-largest agency in the U.S. intelligence community. It is headquartered in Fort Meade, Maryland.
With a 2013 budget request of approximately $10.8 billion, the NSA is the second-largest agency in the U.S. intelligence community. It is headquartered in Fort Meade, Maryland. | Source

Privacy Rights We've Lost

Here are five examples of privacy rights you probably weren’t even aware you've lost. Fallen by the wayside, quietly, swiftly... May they forever rest in peace.

  • Privacy of your trash: This privacy is lost via the Waste Watch Driver Training Program, active in 170+ U.S. cities and towns.
  • Privacy of your DNA: If you were born after 1963 in Massachusetts, or 1970 or so elsewhere in the U.S., your DNA is taken by the hospital and is now stored in various government facilities from state to state. The states claim a right to your genetic material and use it for their research.
  • Privacy of transaction: Welcome to the darknet, aka Echelon, PRISM, and [X]Keyscore. I'm not sure I could say this better than Andreas Antonopoulos did in his TED presentation:

“The darknet is operated by intelligence agencies because they are on a daily basis committing massive crimes against human rights, they are orchestrating a totalitarian financial surveillance network that monitors everybody’s transactions and as a result everybody’s location, everybody’s purchasing preferences, everybody’s political preferences and what kind of porn you watch, because all of that is tied to your financial life. Because everything is tied to your financial life. This system of totalitarian financial surveillance is the darknet. They don’t fear the darknet, they just don’t want us to have one.”

  • Privacy of location: I touched on this already, but it still bears emphasis. Even if you turn your GPS off, your smartphone is a personal tracking device that is constantly triangulating your location via cell towers and WiFi, then sharing your information thousands of times a day with the NSA and likely a host of third-party companies.
  • Privacy of thought: Cue the Orwellian nightmare: researchers at New York University and the University of California have created a mind-reading machine. Similar to facial recognition, it's a software that reconstructs images of a person’s mind using brain scans. We will have commercially available mind-reading technology, presumably to help disabled people type. Google did try to sneak an entire "smart city" facial cam recognition system by the residents of Toronto without public review but hey, I'm sure there's no reason to worry about anyone using it for nefarious purposes, right?

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    © 2019 Jennifer Psallidas

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