Lost in the furor over government spying on its citizens is an inconvenient truth: personal data is the new currency of the 21st century, and until we rein in our desire to spend it we can't really stop others' desires to spy on it.
Paying With Our Data
While not exactly a new thought, Evgeny Morozov highlights just how far we've gone toward making data the new virtual currency, showcasing the "disturbing trend whereby our personal information—rather than money—becomes the chief way in which we pay for services—and soon, perhaps, everyday objects—that we use." In our attempts to get something for nothing—be it email or banking services or any number of different online activities— we have charged willy nilly into a world where we have zero privacy ... by design.
John Naughton of The Guardian grumbles that we've been "conned" into giving up our personal data for free services (like Google and Facebook) and that the only resolution is through political solutions. This is wishful thinking, at best, because it overlooks the biggest problem in the data privacy debate: we can't keep private what we're so eager to sell.
No laws and tools will protect citizens who, inspired by the empowerment fairy tales of Silicon Valley, are rushing to become data entrepreneurs, always on the lookout for new, quicker, more profitable ways to monetise their own data – be it information about their shopping or copies of their genome. These citizens want tools for disclosing their data, not guarding it. Now that every piece of data, no matter how trivial, is also an asset in disguise, they just need to find the right buyer. Or the buyer might find them, offering to create a convenient service paid for by their data – which seems to be Google’s model with Gmail, its email service.
The problem, however, is that while the benefits to consumers are obvious—free email and storage!—the risks are not. Nor is it clear to many of us that while we may be fine using our privacy as currency to "buy" goods and services, we also implicate the people with whom we're communicating, who may be far less interested in selling their privacy so that we can have free online services.
Overreach All Around
Back in the go-go days of 1999, then Sun CEO Scott McNealy told a group of analysts and reporters that consumer privacy issues were a "red herring," avowing that "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." To many, his words were callous. To others, they were reality.
But few likely understood then, as we're slowly beginning to see, that privacy concerns aren't caused by someone else. They're caused by us.
The minute we opened the doors to advertising to pay for our online world, we didn't merely grudgingly give up our privacy. We sold it. Willingly. And we shouldn't therefore be surprised that governments have eagerly been supping at the honeypots we've eagerly enabled to entrap ourselves.
Yes, we have the Web companies to thank for making it seem so appealing, as I've argued. Google, Facebook et al. are hypocritical in the extreme whenever they open their mouths to chide the U.S. government for its collection and use of data.
But we are the ones happily selling ourselves for a few more gigabytes of storage, or a way to talk with friends. We used to pay for such things with money. Now we pay with our private details through our personal details. Governments can impose laws to try to curb this (which would also strike a hypocritical tone, since they are so eager to spy on our data as well), but until it becomes less appealing for us to sell ourselves for free online services, there's little that any government regulation can do. We are the authors of our own stories and we make those stories available to any company or government willing to take a look.
The public has to ask itself a hard question: Do we care? Or are we happy to sell little pieces of our online selves in the name of ease and convenience?
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