Privacy and Orwells possible future dystopia; Age article

October 21, 2013 |

Today the Age published, or republished from the New York Times, an apt article on privacy, Be warned, Orwellian logic has come full circle, on privacy and surveillance in the modern day.

It provides:

In his great and prophetic novel 1984, George Orwell laid out his vision of what totalitarianism would look like if taken to its logical extreme. The government – in the form of Big Brother – sees all and knows all. The Party rewrites the past and controls the present. Heretics pop up on television screens so they can be denounced by the populace. And the Ministry of Truth propagates the Party’s three slogans:

WAR IS PEACE.

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

Dave Eggers’ new novel, The Circle, also has three short Orwellian slogans, and while I do not know whether he consciously modelled The Circle on 1984, I do know that his book could wind up being every bit as prophetic.

Eggers’ subject is what the loss of privacy would look like if taken to its logical extreme. His focus is not on government but on the technology companies that invade our privacy daily. The Circle, you see, is a Silicon Valley company, an evil hybrid of Google, Facebook and Twitter, whose cultures – the freebies, the workaholism, the faux friendliness – Eggers captures with only slight exaggeration.

The Circle has enormous power because it has become the primary gateway to the internet. Thanks to its near-monopoly, it is able to collect reams of data about everyone who uses its services (and many who don’t) – data that allows The Circle to track anyone down in a matter of minutes. It has begun planting small, hidden cameras in various places – to reduce crime, its leaders insist. The Circle wants to place chips in children to prevent abductions, it says. It has called on governments to be ”transparent”, by which it means that legislators should wear a tiny camera that allows the world to watch their every move. Eventually, legislators who refuse find themselves under suspicion – after all, they must be hiding something. This is where The Circle’s logic leads.

Of course, nobody who works for The Circle thinks what he or she is doing is evil. On the contrary, like many a real Silicon Valley executive, they view themselves as visionaries whose goal is benign: to make the world a better place.

”We’re at the dawn of the Second Enlightenment,” says one of The Circle’s founders in a speech to the staff. ”I’m talking about an era where we don’t allow the majority of human thought and action and achievement and learning to escape as if from a leaky bucket.”

It believes if it can eliminate secrecy, people will be forced to be their best selves all the time. It even toys with the idea of getting the government to require voters to use The Circle – to force them to vote on election day.

And, of course, it has found many ways to monetise the data it collects. As for the potential downside of this loss of privacy, it is waved away by Circle executives as if too trifling to even consider.

Is this vision of the future far-fetched? Of course it is – though no more than 1984‘s was. The Circle imagines where we could end up if we don’t begin paying attention. Indeed, what is striking is how far down this road we have already gone. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know that the US National Security Agency has the ability to read our emails and listen to our phone calls. Google shows us ads based on words we use in our Gmail accounts.

Last week, Facebook – which has, in shades of Orwell, a chief privacy officer – removed a privacy setting so that any Facebook user can search for any other Facebook user. The next day, Google unveiled a plan that would make it possible for the company to use its customers’ words and likeness in ads for products they like – information that Google knows because, well, Google knows everything. So, yes, while we’re not in Eggers’ territory yet, we are getting closer.

I don’t have either a Facebook or a Twitter account, yet every few days I get an email from one of the two companies saying that so-and-so is waiting for me to join them in social media land. The people it picks as my potential ”friends” are very often people with whom I’ve never been a true colleague, but I’ve briefly met at some point in my life. It is creepy to me that the companies know that I know these particular people.

”If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know,” Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive of Google, once said, ”maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” That line could easily have been uttered by one of Dave Eggers’ characters. That is the thought process that could some day cost us our last shred of privacy. The Circle is a warning.

And in case you’re wondering, here are The Circle’s three slogans:

SHARING IS CARING.

SECRETS ARE LIES.

PRIVACY IS THEFT.

The above article refers to Facebooks appalling decision to remove restrictions for teens under 18.  As explained in Facebook Is Now Letting Teens Share Posts Publicly.  Vanity Fair covers Facebooks overall denuding of privacy protections, via a bit of humour, in Facebook Defriends Privacy: It’s No Longer Possible to Hide which provides:

We’ve all been there. You meet this guy at a friend’s birthday party, and you end up chatting for seven minutes (“Oh, you went to Dartmouth? Did you know a guy named Joe?”) and you make a mental note to look him up on Facebook when you get home. But the next morning, despite creativity with search terms (“Kevin + Dartmouth + blond hair + dog named Twizzler”), he’s just not showing up. You try searching for him within your mutual friend’s list of friends. No luck there. You sigh, and then, frustrated, switch tabs back to gmail.

Well, good news everyone, this sort of horror story will never happen again!

Facebook announced yesterday that it will be eliminating a privacy option that allowed for users to “opt out of being found in searches.” The feature had allowed individuals to use the site just as anyone else would, but to only be visible to those whom they had accepted as friends. Last year, Facebook removed the option to don this sort of Invisibility Cloak from any Facebookers who weren’t currently using it; but now, they’ve said that those who are using it (said to be “a small percentage of people—in the single digits”) will soon be forced out into the open, as well.

The rationale, according to Facebook’s chief privacy officer?

“The setting made Facebook’s search feature feel broken at times,” he said. “For example, people told us that they found it confusing when they tried looking for someone who they knew personally and couldn’t find them in search results, or when two people were in a Facebook Group and then couldn’t find each other through search.”

Of course, there could still be a chance your Kevin from Dartmouth just doesn’t have a Facebook account, and that’s why you can’t find him, but, now, you’ll know that right away and be able to move on with your day, comforted by the fact that you’re not missing out since, if he’s not on Facebook at all, there’s very likely something off about him, anyway!

In Today”S Guardian there is an interesting article on Facebook and Googles push to make more and more data public, with the consequent privacy loss in In the future, we’ll all have 15 minutes of privacy.  It provides:

It’s almost a given now. Some members of society share (and overshare) so much information on social platforms that they leave little to the imagination. So-called “lifestreaming” was popularized some 6 years ago, but the ubiquity of Facebook, Twitter and the like has made the concept all the easier.

Andy Warhol famously said, “In the future, everyone will have 15 minutes of fame.” But with the amount of personal details that we make readily available to the public, the opposite is closer to the truth. And why shouldn’t it be? As humans, we all have a need to feel heard and acknowledged. The public sharing and affirmation that come with it would seem to be a natural extension.

However, recent announcements by Facebook and Google should make users think otherwise. Facebook announced that it is changing its search parameters and now your name, profile picture, gender and cover photo will be readily accessible through search. In the case of Google, as a registered user, your name and face can be used in ads in conjunction with product recommendations that you’ve made.

To their credit, both platforms have informed users how to avoid such privacy pitfalls with instructions of how to set up posts or how to opt out. But in reality, how many average users will take the time to not only understand the nuances but also to make the changes to their accounts based on the instructions? Certainly, Facebook and Google are hoping that few will – indeed, their advertising models are based on that.

Marketers should hope for the same, as shared personal information is what makes Facebook so highly targetable and Google ads so human and personal. If large numbers of users defect from these practices or platforms, it may be of concern to marketers.

In an era where “everything that happens in Vegas stays on Google,” it’s risky to have such a loose grasp on privacy. There may be ramifications much farther down the road that no one has yet foreseen. Then again, if you don’t want your online ramblings, rants or antics to be public, perhaps you shouldn’t be posting them online in the first place.

 

 

 

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