No Safe Harbor: Privacy Now, Nothing Later

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Let me propose a scenario for you. I'd say close your eyes, but you might need them to read said proposal:

Imagine living in a world where you are photographed at practically every street corner. Imagine living in a world where every time you check your email or search for a recipe, it's recorded and stored in a database. Imagine living in a world where tracking devices record and report your every movement. Imagine living in a world where you have to stop and wonder who may be watching or listening.

Sounds like a scary place from an Orwell novel or some dark third-world corner of the planet, doesn't it? Many of us can't actually imagine living in a world where privacy is just a word. Luckily for those people, they don't have to imagine such a dystopia. They just have to wake up in the morning. We experience this world every day. Data retention laws exist, GPS tracking devices have been installed and used by intelligence agencies, and the average person is recorded by CCTV and other surveillance equipment over 300 times a day. This is all happening right here, in the developed world, and it doesn't seem to bother people in the slightest.

Think about what you depend on privacy for. When you go to vote on election day, you vote for the person you want to vote for because you know the ballot is secret. Nobody will know who got your vote, and it doesn't get traced back to you. When you are with your partner, you know that what goes on behind closed doors is your own business. You hope that when you send an email, text or other form of instant message, your intended recipient will receive that message in confidence, allowing you to express yourself freely and openly. Government and corporate whistle-blowers depend on privacy and confidentiality to protect themselves after exposing wrong-doing. Without privacy, your entire world can be flipped upside down, and chances are you may not even notice.

But before we start marching on Washington, we must consider another issue: Big Brother doesn't have to be the one watching, and that information doesn't have to be forcibly taken.

“We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking.” - Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, Inc.

When talking about loss of privacy, governments and people in power are usually the first to be blamed, and rightfully so. However, you can either knowingly or inadvertently volunteer more information to surveillance-friendly corporations who will pass it along to Big Brother than Big Brother himself could reasonably take from you. Companies like Google and Facebook have voluntarily turned over personal information about criminal suspects and activists, without ever so much as asking for a warrant, and without the targeted people being notified of the leak. It's pointless to demand the end of surveillance without demanding the end of corporate cooperation.

So what does this all mean? Are we doomed to a future where there are cameras in your dashboard and your email comes with a 3kb attachment stating your message is “Department of Homeland Security Approved”? It depends. The ordinary citizen may view a bad privacy policy or a new airport screening measure as a small sacrifice. The future will lie in just how much the masses are willing to sacrifice.