A reader writes:
Please no more of the “it’s modernity, get used to it” argument. That kind of argument from apathetic helplessness is lazy and illuminates nothing. Talk about the trade-offs between security and privacy; talk about the pros and cons of using our identity as a product of commerce. But your inability to conceive of a modern Internet that also protects privacy is simply not a justification for programs like PRISM. Just because you can’t imagine it, doesn’t mean it’s not possible. The technology is there to encrypt and protect private communications and to enforce chain of custody and access to data. It’s only a matter of deciding that this is something we value as a citizenry, and then vote with our wallets and at the ballet box, and it will happen.
Maybe people aren’t willing to pay for online services, and would rather commodify their personal information in exchange. But this is a value judgment and it is incorrect to argue that this is an inherent property of networked society. It’s not a fact of modernity; it’s just the way we’ve allowed corporations and our government to develop the Internet.
The second thing I find problematic is when people invoke the opt-out argument in reference to the Internet as a whole.
When dealing with private institutions, an individual can opt in or opt out on a service-by-service basis, which makes the ability to opt out easier. If you don’t agree with a particular terms of service, you don’t have to use that service. I know plenty of people who are not on Facebook and choose not to share their personal information with that company. But when you think about it, Facebook is really not an essential service and most of us can do without it. This government surveillance program, on the other hand, is an entirely different bargain: there are no terms of service, and if you want to opt out, you’d need to opt out of the whole Internet.
I work with street-engaged youth, and the Internet is one of the basic tools used to help them problem solve things like employment and housing. Lack of access to the Internet is a real barrier, and I think that people who easily dismiss the Internet as a non-essential service do so from a point of stability in their lives where they don’t really need to locate new resources or make new connections to people. You can do it for a time, but eventually you will run into a situation where you will need to interact with the modern world and then you will be stuck. Point is: it’s very difficult to opt out of the Internet entirely, and it’s not fair to say, “well then don’t use the Internet!”
I’m a 26-year-old who’s been reading your blog daily since your coverage of the Green Revolution in Iran, and who’s been a tech nerd for much longer. I couldn’t possibly disagree more with the comments you posted from other millennials. The idea that we should accept and understand the Internet as a free, open tool that also allows both private entities and governments to collect and monitor all of our data is absurd and contradictory on its face. The Internet really can’t be considered “open” or “free” without complete transparency from governments and private corporations about exactly how/when/why they’re using our data, and without our explicit permission to do so.
Which is exactly why Edward Snowden’s revelations are so profoundly troubling to me (and every other millennial I’ve talked to about this): back when we first started using the internet, we could expect almost complete privacy. Websites that wanted to keep your data would have to ask you about it. You could send emails, place purchases, read blogs, search Google, etc. without the fear of having those actions tracked – either by the sites you used or your own government. But now we no longer have a real choice to opt out of this kind of tracking and monitoring, and both the government and the companies that collect and use our data are unapologetic about doing so.
I mean, I find myself at the same place as your first millennial commenter – if you’re uncomfortable with data collection, you can choose to not use the Internet – but I come to the polar opposite conclusion about that place. The Internet is now so ingrained in my generational cohort’s lives that not using it is not a realistic option. So we must use the knowledge that our every digital move is subject to surveillance (knowledge that we now have thanks to Snowden) to have an actual debate about how far we’re willing to go to protect ourselves from a threat that, even at its worst, pales in comparison to the lethality of more pressing concerns (gun violence, obesity/disease, traffic accidents).
Snowden’s revelations have, in my mind, breathed new life into FDR’s warning that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” This is something this county has been struggling with ever since 9/11: to what extent do we let our fear of the unknown incrementally drive us somewhere horrifying? To the point where we decide it’s fine for the government to collect data on all of our phone calls if we’re assured it’s being used to save us from the all-powerful terrorists? To the point where we let the NSA read all of our emails? Let them listen in on all of our phone calls (because our phone companies allow them to listen in when their own call monitoring programs pick up on patterns of speech that they find threatening)? Let them control who we can and can’t talk to or associate with (people who talk to politically troubling people have a chance of being problematic themselves, of course)? Let them decide which party we support (our Amazon wishlists and Facebook likes should predict that accurately, so why even bother to vote)?
Yes, that’s hyperbolic, but it seems to me that we’re still shamefully quaking in our boots about the threat of terrorism, based on fear and fear itself. We are better than that, and it is fundamentally wrong for us not to be outraged about blatant invasions of our privacy (legal or otherwise).