For some reason, people were shocked when Google admitted in a US courtroom last week that, effectively, no one should expect privacy when sending a message via Gmail, the Net giant’s hugely popular web-based email provider.
Let’s face it: as a series of revelations over the past several months have made clear, almost nothing communicated over the Internet, cellular networks or telephone lines is impervious to monitoring by a third party. The technology makes access too easy. It should be obvious by now that governments and corporations routinely use information dragnets to scoop up private communications as a means of political and economic control.
The new arms race doesn’t involve weapons of mass destruction. Knowledge is power, and the frontlines of the modern power struggle is the ability to harvest and control mass data.
In the case of Google’s Gmail, we have become used to seeing ads pop up that address the subject of an email we sent only seconds ago. It’s no secret that the company uses powerful computer algorithms to detect key words in order to niche target advertising. That’s why the service is free; the company has become a global behemoth in a few short years by selling your most intimate desires to other companies that want to sell you something.
And if a profit-seeking private firm can do that, you can bet your last bitcoin that governments and other security entities are doing the same with the conversations that you might have naively expected to be shielded from inspection. Email providers, social media networks, who we call and when; they are all subject to data collection and analysis. Those of us born before the digital age believed that it would take a court order to open our envelopes sent via the post or to listen in on our telephone calls. New technology renders those legal niceties completely redundant.
Even on a personal level, there is a plethora of spyware applications you can use to secretly peer into someone’s personal communications. The constantly evolving Net security software people use to protect their electronic communications from unwanted eyes is the other side of this informational arms race. Both sides constantly update their data weapons.
There is no way to stuff the digital genie back in the virtual bottle. And I’m not even sure we should if we could.
Take the revelations by brave whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning (the American soldier now facing life in prison for disclosing a mountain of sensitive government information to the WikiLeaks website) and Edward Snowden (the former CIA computer specialist now on the lam in Russia after revealing the extent of US government surveillance programs on practically every transmission made anywhere in the world). They turned the tables on the spies in a fit of conscience.
The frenzied and desperate reaction by the US government to squash these individuals’ lives as a means to intimidate others tempted by their example is a sign of the mania for information control in modern life. But the truth will out. The ultimate irony is that the very technological ease of gathering and transmitting massive amounts of information made the mind-blowing disclosures by Manning and Snowden possible. By your own sword shall you perish.
Once people accept that there is no reasonable expectation of secrecy in the wired world, we can adapt. The problem is that many of us still live by an older code that assumes a right to privacy. We have that right, in theory, but in reality it is meaningless when we expose our private lives to the digital grid that now defines and governs our social interactions.
Is it right? No. But knowledge is power, and if we know that public and private powers are spying on us, we can govern ourselves accordingly.