8 April 2012
Secrets and spies
According to an interview he gave a couple of years ago, Mark Zuckerberg believes that privacy is no longer "a social norm". Do people care about privacy any more?
People, he said, "have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people".
He would say that. Thanks to his fond belief – and thanks to Facebook, the company he founded – "Zuck" is a billionaire 18 times over at the age of 27. With 800 million users worldwide, each blithely surrendering personal data, his social network has made a lot of advertisers very happy. In return, they have made the anti-hero of the movie The Social Network stinking rich.
Privacy, a concept and a right several centuries in the making, isn't exactly in Zuckerberg's interest, therefore. It's not closest to the hearts of the people behind Google (one billion monthly "visitors") or Twitter (350 million users), either.
In fact, the antique notion that some things are no-one's business but your own isn't central to the business plans of most of those who handle your online activities. Yet these are the people who are left, almost unhindered, to harvest and sell the most intimate truths about our lives. We trust young Zuck.
Isn't there something wrong with that? Put the question to the vote, concerned citizen, and you would lose. Zuckerberg would win. Anyone who is currently outraged over the latest surveillance scheme concocted by the Home Office and the spooks is almost certainly handing over plenty of data on a daily basis. The Facebook founder is right: we've "really gotten comfortable" with that.
Many won't realise what's going on, of course. They won't have heard that Google tracks a user's every web movement, often ignoring those "privacy settings" in the process. They won't know about the iPhone apps that send your entire address book to third parties without letting on.
Most won't realise that their smartphones can be tracked by almost anyone, in any case, and that the same goes for their satnavs. They won't have heard that those hilarious online pseudonyms can be linked to their owners without much trouble. They won't know what a tracking cookie is.
The busy business executive won't stop to realise that LinkedIn is just another way to harvest information. He and she won't be aware of the number of private companies that are already far ahead of David Cameron's government in the surveillance game, cross-referencing online activities (especially the ones people would rather not talk about) to create "profiles". Most won't know, above all, that these few facts are the mere tip of a looming iceberg. All of the big data companies – Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook – are vastly expanding their information-gathering systems. That's where the money is. It amounts to precisely the sort of global surveillance of which governments can only dream. But don't think governments – our own would be a good example – haven't noticed.
For corporations, the deal is this: you get a lot of services that are useful or fun for free. You don't pay for the product; you become the product, sold to advertisers. Would the information-harvesting therefore cease if charges were levied? No-one in the online industries has ever offered that guarantee.
For politicians, other forces are at work. One is the impulse to transform themselves from staunch civil libertarians into spymasters the instant they form a government. Suddenly, no amount of private information is ever enough in the name of public security, and no item of information is ever sacrosanct. Like the corporations they are, of course, utterly trustworthy.
One cliche has it that an obsession with security stems from insecurity. When it becomes obvious that banks, not governments, run the world, those who are supposed to govern look for other things they can control. The domestic population usually tops the list. We give huge amounts of information freely, so why not give a bit more? If it makes sense for your GP to keep your medical records, why not give MI5 the information that will keep you safe from terrorists? And if you've done nothing wrong, why worry if they want a look at your Facebook usage?
That would depend on the definition of "wrong", of course. It also depends on the belief that only the agents of government are fit to judge the information they need to know. Then comes that small democratic detail. If knowledge is power, how much knowledge should be granted to the state when it can't or won't name the uses to which information will be put?
Once upon a time I would have added privacy to that list. Nowadays, I'm not so sure. If a politician shouts "terrorism", most people won't bother to argue. Since hundreds of millions of them across the planet surrender their privacy daily to Facebook and the rest, most of them won't even care. In this century, to paraphrase Zuckerberg, privacy doesn't matter.
It's just a few photographs to share with your mates. It's just a tweet that might be a bit embarrassing on the morning after. It's just a ton of information tracing every detail of your life on a government server that is – isn't it? – absolutely secure. Paranoia makes no sense.
This begins to look like capitalism's next phase, achieved with the willing co-operation – the uninhibited enthusiasm – of the masses while governments hitch a ride. Partly it's conditioning: see how the queues form whenever Apple punts a new toy. Partly it's technological drift: try to work without access to email. The largest part of it, though, is something new. It is the belief that nothing personal matters enough to be worth protecting.
To misuse an old Lou Reed song, our children are growing up in public. Reed was singing, quaintly, about mere celebrities. Now it's everyone, the millions tweeting and blogging and, above all, "sharing". To share is to exist. To be out of contact is to be invisible. It is imperative to display yourself. If the information involved doesn't matter to you, why should you care what Mark Zuckerberg does with it? Or your elected government.
When the internet first began, its pioneers talked dreamily of global communities and virtual democracies. They didn't see Facebook coming, nor the corporatisation of the word "social", nor the day when privacy would be regarded as suspicious by elected governments. Among those truly dedicated to social media, meanwhile, a person who aims to remain private is a recluse. Zuck was right again: there is a new "norm". That's handy for the security services.
Privacy is identity. In my (non-Face) book, the private person is the person you truly are. Give that away, daily and nightly – give it away to a corporation or a government, indeed – and you disappear into the collective, beloved of SF writers. We needn't resort to fiction, though. The plain phrase "my business" sums it up. But I think I am being outvoted, and outvoted overwhelmingly.
While I have been writing, a piece of software – yes, I spot the irony – has been removing 21 tracking cookies from the laptop. It's a daily ritual, and pointless. Like Schwarzenegger, they'll be back. It's part of the price we pay for all that lovely freedom. The rest of the price has yet to be calculated.