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At the library, Sandman eased himself into a chair, booted up one of the computers and showed him how to access the files of individuals the Securities and Exchange Commission kept on its website as a public record. Then they migrated to separate ends of the row of computers and went to work. Once they were in possession of this information, they would use the stationery to request credit histories on selected individuals, and this would give them access to the brokerage account numbers. Then it was easy. Or it should be. Go to the Internet, transfer funds from existing accounts to the ones they’d set up elsewhere, let things rest a couple days and transfer them again, taking it deeper. Then close it all down, in and out, and nobody the wiser. And nobody hurt, except a couple of fat cats so fat they couldn’t keep track of their own sweat trail. And they were crooks, anyway. Everybody knew that. T. C. Boyle, Talk Talk
Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I’ll be watching you
Every Breath You Take, The Police
I like to watch. Chance the Gardener, Being There
The human animal has a fascination with voyeurism. “You may remember the sextortionist who hacked into Miss Teen USA’s computer camera and took compromising photographs. He tried to get money in exchange for not distributing the pictures, and got 18 months behind bars instead.” (Your Webcam Could Be Spying on You and You Can Stop It). No one who reads should be surprised by this fact. (see The Voyeur’s Hotel by Gay Talese). In fact, “The figure of the voyeur in literature has been around at least since the time of Homer. Odysseus, we recall, spies on Penelope and her suitors.” This was, I think, long before computers and the tech revolution. (See: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?: Voyeurism, Dissociation, and the Art of Raymond Carver, by David Boxer and Cassandra Phillips.)
What do those who spy on us want? The truly mercenary want to steal our money, our identity, or spoil our reputation. Merchandisers want to target their advertising to interested customers. For others, voyeurism is about the thrill: sexual titillation, novelty, or simply release from everyday boredom. The police want to catch criminals. Autocrats (religious or secular) want us to behave in certain ways (either through force or self-censorship).
It’s true that spying in one form or another has been with us since the earliest of times. What’s new today is the amount of information that exists on you, on all of us, and the computer power available to process it. Whether you use Facebook, Google, Instagram or any other app on an iPhone, iPAD, laptop, desktop or any other device—in other words, if you live in the modern world—you are being followed, watched, and your data compiled whether you know it or not. That’s simply a fact. Listen to the 2012 Ted Talk by Malte Spitz: Your Phone Company is Watching.
Internet data collection has been going on for a long time and now it’s in the news. (See: I Saw How Much Information Facebook Has On Me. Yikes ! by Brian X. Chen of New York Times; or: Who Has More of Your Personal Data Than Facebook Try Google? by Christopher Mims.)
I’m a little late to the party. I only recently read The Circle by Dave Eggers and later watched the movie starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks. (Personal disclosure: I liked the book better, especially the ending which was different from the movie.)
The argument (right or wrong) that outing all your secrets “does more good than harm” is the central point made in The Circle. Eamon Bailey, one of the “three Wise Men,” speaks convincingly to the central character, Mae Holland, about this belief of his:
“I have thought on this for years, and I have yet to conjure a scenario where a secret does more good than harm. Secrets are the enablers of antisocial, immoral and destructive behavior. Do you see how this is?”
“I think so. But—”
“You know what my spouse said to me years ago when we got married? She said that whenever we were apart, for instance when I might go on a business trip, I should behave as if there were a camera on me. As if she were watching. Way back when, she was saying this in a purely conceptual way, and she was half-kidding, but the mental picture helped me. If I found myself alone in a room with a woman colleague, I would wonder, What would Karen think of this if she were watching from a closed-circuit camera? This would gently guide my behavior, and it would prevent me from even approaching behavior she wouldn’t like, and of which I wouldn’t be proud. It kept me honest. You see what I mean?”
“I do,” Mae said.
“I mean, the trackability of self-driving cars is solving a lot of this, of course. Spouses increasingly know where the other has been, given the car logs where it’s been driven. But my point is, what if we all behaved as if we were being watched? It would lead to a more moral way of life. Who would do something unethical or immoral or illegal if they were being watched? If their illegal money transfer was being tracked?
If their blackmailing phone call was being recorded? If their stick-up at the gas station was being filmed by a dozen cameras, and even their retinas identified during the robbery? If their philandering was being documented in a dozen ways?”
“I don’t know. I’m imagining all that would be greatly reduced.”
“Mae, we would finally be compelled to be our best selves. And I think people would be relieved. There would be this phenomenal global sigh of relief. Finally, finally, we can be good. In a world where bad choices are no longer an option, we have no choice but to be good. Can you imagine?”
quoted from The Circle by Dave Eggers
Well, maybe. But there is a downside. What if we all get lost in our devices and miss out on the actual life that’s out there? And, what about the complete control those who own the system would have? What if some of the information is wrong, incorrect, hacked, altered? What about people who simply value their privacy? Aren’t those dangers to worry about?
It’s not about doing something shameful. It’s about doing something private. It’s about your life belonging to you.
Little Brother, Cory Doctorow
Fiction can be better than fact in explaining these tricky issues. Read The Circle. See the movie. Take a look at three of Cory Doctorow’s books (Little Brother, Walkaway, Homeland). Decide for yourself where we are going, where we should go. Two quotes from Charles Peguy get to the point I’m making here:
He who does not bellow the truth when he knows the truth makes himself the accomplice of liars and forgers.
We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.
The power in Google data is that people tell the giant search engine things they might not tell anyone else.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Everybody Lies
The power of the data online is immense and beguiling. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz does a good job of explaining this in his book Everybody Lies.
This book is about a whole new way of studying the mind. Big Data from internet searches and other online responses are not a cerebroscope, but Seth Stephens-Davidowitz shows that they offer an unprecedented peek into people’s psyches. At the privacy of their keyboards, people confess the strangest things, sometimes (as in dating sites or searches for professional advice) because they have real-life consequences, at other times precisely because they don’t have consequences: people can unburden themselves of some wish or fear without a real person reacting in dismay or worse. Either way, the people are not pressing a button or turning a knob, but keying in any of trillions of sequences of characters to spell out their thoughts in all their explosive, combinatorial vastness. Better still, they lay down these digital traces in a form that is easy to aggregate and analyze. They come from all walks of life. They can take part in unobtrusive experiments which vary the stimuli and tabulate the responses in real time. And they happily supply these data in gargantuan numbers.
Introduction to Everybody Lies by Steven Pinker
The real impact of the data revolution is yet to be seen. Using data for building predictive models is just the tip of the iceberg. The real usage of personal data will be seen once connected devices get the life some of the recent books and movies describe. Will we live in a world where humans are so busily engaged with personal devices they won’t have time to enjoy the reality around them?
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google and their ilk are the new Secret Police. Is that a problem? What are you afraid you of? Have you been cheating on your spouse? Visiting porn sites? Cheating on your income taxes? Are you worried about identity theft? Family members being kidnapped? Your children being corrupted? An onslaught of emails, scams, hacking? What?
Technology is misused. We all know that. Some cybercriminals have been turned around to partner with governments to solve cybercrimes (see Kingpin by Kevin Poulsen). Others are recruited to design instruments of cyber warfare to use against other countries. Are we making a deal with the devil?
And there’s more. What about the Internet of Things? (See: The Silent Intelligence by Daniel Kellmereit and Daniel Obodovski). Some day everything in your life could be hooked up to the internet. How convenient but is this a good thing?
I’ve only scratched the surface here but you get the point. This could be THE issue of our day even swamping the reality show of our politics. I have a feeling there will be more headlines, more issues, and more to say about this vast subject over the coming years. Stay tuned !