George Orwell’s prescient novel, 1984 has been presented as a literary bulwark against the totalitarian state ever since it was published in 1949. In his dystopian future world, every action of the citizen is monitored, and those that do not adhere to the states dictates are punished. The omnipresent government uses mind control to maintain a hold over the people. All independent thinking is punished as a thought crime.
The aspect of his novel that is most disturbing in some ways, is the governments ability to know and record everything about its subjects, every action, every thought; nothing is private about their lives. Authoritarian governments like those in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union similarly controlled every action of the people, or certainly did their best to do so, not always with success.
In our own time, with the knowledge economy and the advent of Big Data, the accumulation of vast databases, is similarly ominous in the potential harm to citizens and their rights. Corporations are collecting everything they possibly can about us and about our lives, to the extent that some corporations know more about us than we do ourselves. Corporations use this data ostensibly to market products to us based on a host of factors.
The potential for abuse of this data is enormous and limited only by the scope of our imagination. People’s political affiliation can be adduced not just by what we say, but by who we may associate with, the books we read, or even the type of food that we buy. Corporations can now tell who we may associate with, where we might be at any given time, whether we are substance abusers, or with whom we have sexual relations.
Based on the data collected, corporations could deny services to certain groups of people, or deny employment based on political or social affiliations. We could be denied the right to purchase homes in some communities, as is already done if a potential buyer has a JC Penneys charge card, or a certain type of credit card.
People can be excluded from parts of society, such as golf or tennis clubs based on those political or social affiliations. People may be denied health insurance, or social services depending on the data collected.
The CIA recently revealed that it has an insatiable appetite for data, that it collects everything that it can, emails, texts, tweets, videos, phone calls into a set of databases hosted on the Cloud. The agency claims that they had all the data they needed to stop the underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, yet were unable to do so.
The ostensible use for all this data would be to determine whether terror attacks or other threats to national security are about to happen. If they cannot do this task, all that data is all but useless for the task.
If that is the case, or even if it is not, we need to ask, is that data justified at all? With all that information at their fingertips, it is only a matter of time before government abuses its power.
Data might be used to blackmail politicians into voting a particular way, or citizens could be similarly blackmailed based on their affiliations. It was a favorite tactic of both the Nazis and the Soviets to interrogate people based on information they received from their sources. Today, it is far simpler for agencies to accomplish.
We live in relatively peaceful times, where government is not a particular threat to its citizens. What is worrisome, is that an extremist government could well attain power, either here in the United States, or in parts of Europe.
Free Speech is a right that we enjoy, but that right may be severely curtailed under the wrong regime. Data collected about people could be used to target political adversaries, or people that a new regime may term “social deviants”, a term used by the Nazi’s to describe a host of people.
The CIA confided that we are all “walking sensor platforms”, what with mobiles, smartphones and iPads, which have cameras, accelerometers, light detectors and geolocation capabilities. Added to the enormous quantities of data collected about us, this provides governments, corporations, and possibly even private citizens with enough to know everything about us.
We have no reason to trust that corporations or governments will treat our data with respect, and institute regulations dealing with that data that favor the citizen, Not only that, but foreign governments could get the same data and treat it in ways that violate all our human liberties.
Even when devices are turned off, they still transmit location data, enabling anyone with the capability to track all our movements. The laws are not keeping pace with the rapid changes in our technology. Corporations violate our privacy every second of every day.
Corporations like Facebook treat our personal data as though it were not ours, opening that data to anyone that may want to see it, requiring us to change our security settings on a regular basis just to keep up
Conservatives often say that if you have nothing to hide, you should not worry about government monitoring you. It is not whether we have anything to hide, it is whether governments or corporations can misconstrue our actions and impute affiliations that may not exist that is of concern.
It is more what governments or corporations have to hide that is worrying, and what they do with the information they get. We cannot judge what regimes we may inherit in the future, or what they will do with this information.
We need to be safe from monitoring by the CIA, the NSA, corporations like Target or Wal-Mart, because of what they may do with the information they get. We may have governments that are marginally trustworthy today, but they may not be so tomorrow.
People should have a right to their privacy, to their own information, not because they have something to hide, but because governments and corporations should not have dominion over people’s thoughts, actions or data.
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