[article updated March 1, 2020]
So…what’s with all the privacy and security-based firms violating our privacies?
I thought it was your job not to do that? Maybe quit, then?
I’m being facetious, but more seriously, my comments do originate from a place of deep and brooding concern; yes, there will always be hackers and boogie men, but let’s be honest – we are WAY too nosy, as individuals, and as a culture. Like, in the dumbest ways possible. As far as codified norms go, we wonder and know way too much about the next person, and let me tell you… self-reliance just doesn’t hit like it used to. What’s more is that the “you” people see, that you share, isn’t even the real you, and yes, you can get jailed for that. Even worse than that, it was all an accident – not so much the “haha-we-were-painting-the-fence-and-saw-the-neighbors-fucking-on-the-lawn” type, moreso a horrible-100-car-pile-up-because-“oops-we-rubbernecked-too-hard-at-that-horrible-wreck-on-the-other-side-of-the-highway” kind of thing. Yeah, we let this happen.
We are nosy not only because we lack discipline, but also because now our JOBS expect us to be so. Beyond the institutionalized narcissism, and the laziness, the permanent distraction-feed in your pocket, and the tendency to keep up with Jones’ phone, laptop, tablet, and game console, etc., we have been made more nosy by an economy that wants you to work to sell-out, spy on, undercut, or outright accuse your neighbor. In 2020, capital-c-“Capitalism” has successfully created a robust fiscal/industrial environment teeming with little pockets of secret police and gossip-philes, some of whom have written pages of code just learn a little more about you. Little changes in one’s life (which were not only once insignificant, but also private), matter just as much as the big ones – if you tag it right and post in the morning, you’ll hear about all of it from people you don’t even know by dinnertime. Even circumstantial selfies are fodder for the rumor-mill; if your photobomb is clever enough, well, that’s headline material; record yourself screwing something up in a purely fantastic manner, and Hey! You’re going viral, baby! The government is loving it, btw.
THAT’S FUNNY – I, TOO, CANNOT LEAVE ‘WELL-ENOUGH’ ALONE
Admittedly, I’m compelled to rant only for reasons of frequency. Being extremely introverted, I don’t like to complain as a rule, but y’all made me go and make a blog; if capital-P-“Privacy” concerns weren’t a thing, and the tech industry wasn’t so morally confused, you wouldn’t hear from me at all. I don’t have a Facebook, and all of my other socials, including my website, are treated like professional media galleries for artworks. Last year, I locked myself out of my website trying to make it more secure, and left it down for about 8 months because, somehow, it felt like a parable. I screen all my calls, leave my voicemail box full on purpose, and I’ve trained my friends to know I’m not dead if I don’t respond to the group text for a few days. I generally do a pretty good job completely ignoring social media and concurrent themes – I keep to myself in a misanthropic way, and you do you, you know?
So, before we go into why my opinion matters (it doesn’t), let’s just say that I have a friend working as a contractor for the CIA, who has told me, plain and simple, that he and his colleagues are, in fact, “trying to make ‘Minority Report’ real”, but using deep-learning AI technology instead of pre-cogs. While I’m ethically jazzed to know that the CIA hasn’t quite yet stooped so low as kidnapping poor, defenseless, psychically-gifted young adults, I have to ask – Why?? Why didn’t we just finish reading that novel on which Mr. Dick worked so hard illustrating a pre-deterministic cyber-fascist future, to tell us such viable warnings? Why did we have to take ‘being nosy’ to that irreparable, societally-damning, capital-g-“Government” level, for which I have to pay taxes and think about my social credit? Why did we, as a culture, decide to completely give in to one of our least attractive, most annoying, absolutely solipsistic traits? Is it just to feel safer? Or, just because we can? Just to make some more money?? All of it? Really? Ok.
Again, being facetious, but it speaks volumes to me that we let ourselves fall into these habits. It’s true, there are those people who love that everyone else can see their lives, deliberately telling on friends, themselves, total strangers cooking out, becoming walking fail-videos for the follows, the comments, the retweets, the likes. Hell, I know there are a few folks out their who get a kick out of streaming themselves breathing (or doing something else, with entirely less effort).
This editorial is not about those people. This editorial is about the rest of us who cringe at the existence of those people, who know that there are at least a few things Dignity requires in order to possess a human being. If some of those people are reading this editorial, I implore you to stay awhile, it’s possible you might learn something about yourselves, and why I think you’re a HUGE part of the problem. Otherwise, please leave immediately!
COME ON DOWN, IT’S TIME TO PLAY, “THE PRICE FOR YOUR PRIVACY IS RIGHT!”
When the privacy-violating ills of social media and other tech platforms begin to bleed into my day-to-day, we have a huge problem. To be more specific, let’s talk about the phenomenon that is privacy, security, and government based platforms selling out their customers, at every possible opportunity, and in every possible way. By now, I’m sure you’ve heard that your Ring Camera can be hacked, allowing total strangers into your home to interact with your family, just ‘for the bantz’. I’m sure you know that Tik-Tok is now a matter of national security, and that you’ve also come across reports alluding to the fact that employees at Google, Amazon, AND Apple are all listening to your pillow-talk and drug deals. How about the vibrator that sends analytics about your orgasm, or the Nest baby cameras that can be hacked to watch, and talk to your newborn? Did you ever stop to ask yourself why your child’s first phrase might be “Hey kid, yeah you, look over here, in the camera?” It’s clear to me that the current state of IOT is, for people like me, a dangerous no-man’s land of warnings and symptoms, a time bomb that just keeps going off.
But did you also know that the databases of Clearview AI (yes, the controversial facial recognition company), were recently ‘breached’? That the company who is notorious for breaking your privacy and data boundaries just had 3 billion image files scraped (specifically not hacked), which means they possibly broke your privacy and data boundaries AGAIN, but this time, by ACCIDENT?
Here’s the real question: How many of you actually like it?
Government organizations like the DMV have even gotten into the game (and have been there for years). This breach was not one just of data, personal information, and privacy – it was one of the mind. You voluntarily gave your information to a company so that they could do what they wanted with it. Why? You think it’s because they owe you a service, but that’s wrong. You gave your information to them because you’re used to doing so. And at some point, they got used to selling it. And at some point after that, other people realized all that data is just flying around without anyone really watching it, or caring about who’s responsibile when it’s accessed in an unauthorized fashion.
The Great Equifax Hack of 2017 is a great example of this. I know lots of people who got their check, but I still haven’t checked to see if I have $125 waiting for me – why? If you said, “because you have trust issues, Mr. Ngtv”, you’re only half-right. It’s because I never had an account with Equifax, and was never made aware that they had any of my information. The settlement defeats the purpose of any lessons that should have been learned – in what world should I give more information (such as a mailing address or bank information) to an individual, organization, or company that allowed that information to be accessed in the first place?
A similar episode occurred with the 2019 CapitolOne Hack – just days after the hack made headlines (a spectacular one too, way off-narrative), I started getting gratuitous amounts of promotional mail from CapitolOne. Besides being creeped out that the barrage seemed to correspond with my news viewing habits, I mostly wondered, What for? If there’s one thing I dislike more than nosy people, it’s companies that do a bad job saving face. Honestly, what do you expect me to do? Look at your damage control and say, “My, they’ve done such a nice job cleaning up that particular mess – where do I sign up???” (I did make an effort to burn every piece of mail I got from CapitolOne, but lost interest once I finally convinced myself there was no RIFD chip in the envelopes).
A LEAP YEAR IN PARADISE
To borrow a term coined by esteemed and wildly prolific social critic, Mike Judge, I do my best to avoid the “Idiocracy”. It is that completely vapid, yet very strangely hierarchical and robust social system in which we tend to find ourselves participating, almost involuntarily and usually at the behest of a rapidly-evolving global economy that ignores basic biology and has made the phrase “You Want More” into an artform (let’s be honest, it started as science). “Fad culture” It is a timeless phenomenon that long predates social media, however social media, as we have grown to call it, has done well to knock down all barriers to entry, by any and all means. It’s the jealous feeling you get when you see your friends share pics from the party, but you can’t find one good enough; it’s the feeling of inadequacy when you scroll through a feed and see your people chilling without you; it’s the longing that comes when total strangers post relatable content. It’s why I feel suicidal when I look at instagram… and that’s not a joke, or a cry for help*, it’s just something that happens to me, in an very inexplicable and visceral way – and that’s deeply troubling, when considering insta is owned by a company that’s admitted to creating an addicting, psychologically manipulative product.
I posit that it is this “Idiocracy” that has created all the vulnerable security and privacy-based platforms, which, for some reason, can’t get enough irony for their bottom-line. Over a number of years and lots of human error, people have offered themselves to a technological economy of convenience, under the auspices of ‘feeling safer’ or ‘more organized’. We did exactly what we said we swore not to do back in computer class in 1997 – we willingly gave all our information to a security company that said they would protect us. And all the while we posted away on our socials, connecting with friends, essentially doxxing ourselves before we knew what “doxxing” even meant. Now, not just occasionally, but frequently, we see reports of another hack, another class-action lawsuit, another instance in which a tech firm is apologizing for the breach of privacy they said they would never commit. I don’t think this responsibility falls on any one party, not the consumers, the tech industry, or even the government. All are at fault, but the real culprit here has to be the human condition – the inability people have to be able to help themselves.
Think about it – you spend years and years telling everyone about yourself, demonstrating your failures along with your successes, extolling your most tender feelings and raw frustrations, laying bare your embarrassment as well as your pride – do you really have anything left to hide? This is not to say that the tech is bad, just that we are lazy. Perhaps it’s just my capital-P-“Punk” ethic taking hold, but the real change is internal – unless an opposite and equal response in the form of policy and awareness, we will only see a worsening positive feedback loop (and you know, I don’t take too kindly to those).
AN UPDATE, FOR HOPE’S SAKE
Like deadly weapons and power tools, these technologies can be very useful, but only if the philosophies governing them are sound. I won’t say these issues are irreparable, and I do think that the cultural bias towards privacy/security is evolving, and more and more people are changing their social media habits for the right reasons. I do think, however, that our predilection to just ‘let things be’ has gone on far too long, with every solution to worsening problems coming up short. Money and complacency have had their turns, and it’s been a nice leap year in paradise, but the calendar is still running out, and someone has to clean up this mess. This is the root of all technological evils in 2020, and coincidentally why privacy-based firms can’t seem to keep their data private – we did this to ourselves. We can’t argue anymore that it’s only ‘money’, or ‘power’, or ‘fame’, but rather must come to grips that it’s ALL of those tropes of desire, brought to you by the one-and-only Human Condition™ (by Facebook™).
We generated a culture that bows to voyeurism and exhibitionism, and lacking discipline, we also bowed, letting our very livelihoods take the wheel. The line between our private and public lives is permanently blurry, and one can get easily fired from their job, and perhaps jailed, for ignoring that fact. Our wallets are inside our phones, which recognize both our fingerprints AND faces. Where Madison Avenue used to sell us emotions and experience, products use memes to essentially sell themeselves (and deliver themselves, too). Algorithms, not advertisements, tell us what we want (and sometimes do a scary good job). We invite strangers to watch our homes and listen to our conversations, and all we had to do was click “I Have Read and Agree to the Terms of Service”. In 2020, you can actually put “Influencer” on a resume and get away with it. Yes, it’s true – we did this to ourselves. Maybe take a break?
So, the same day I posted this essay, KrebsOnSecurity, an in-depth investigatory news outlet that focuses on security issues (and takes its job very seriously), posted reports that, as of February 28, 2020, the FCC is proposing to fine wireless service carriers upwards of 200 million dollars for selling customer location data. I couldn’t have asked for a better article to cite – It’s a quick read, and I highly recommend it if you’re curious about previous efforts to hold wireless carriers accountable, and why it’s taking so damn long. While the FCC is not my favorite government body, it’s at least a little bit reassuring that it is giving some effort to what Georgetown Law Institute fellow and former FCC chairman, Gigi Sohn, has admitted is a “debacle”.
“The importance of having rules that protect consumers before they are harmed cannot be overstated,” Sohn said. “In 2016, the Wheeler FCC adopted rules that would have prevented most mobile phone users from suffering this gross violation of privacy and security. But [FCC] Chairman Pai and his friends in Congress eliminated those rules, because allegedly the burden on mobile wireless providers and their fixed broadband brethren would be too great. Clearly, they did not think for one minute about the harm that could befall consumers in the absence of strong privacy protections.”Gigi Sohn, Georgetown Law Institute Fellow/Former Senior Advisor to Tom Wheeler (FCC 2016)
Mr. Sohn’s words echo an important sentiment; that while the road to Hell might be paved with glitzy mobileOS features, Hell itself is still as indifferent, opportunistic, and eager to take your money as ever. The impact on culture is as negative as it is unseen – we’ve been so acclimated to ignore the wolves in sheep’s clothing that we’re only just now getting around choosing the right rifle to scare them away. On the one hand, I believe the FCC’s proposal is an important and momentous step in the right direction. The FCC even has specific figures for their fines based on the amount of time each respective wireless carrier spent selling out their customers’ data. On the other hand, it’s just a proposal, and each of those wireless carriers has an opportunity to make appeals and dispute those figures (and you know they’re going to, because this is America, damnit!).
I think Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) puts it best:
“Time and again, from Facebook to Equifax, massive companies take reckless disregard for Americans’ personal information, knowing they can write off comparatively tiny fines as the cost of doing business… The only way to truly protect Americans’ personal information is to pass strong privacy legislation like my Mind Your Own Business Act [PDF] to put teeth into privacy laws and hold CEOs personally responsible for lying about protecting Americans’ privacy.”Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) [for krebsonsecurity.com]
All we can do is get involved. Not all of us have time to be lawyers, or even read about these issues in any meaningful way, but that’s not necessary to be aware of an issue that affects everyone. What’s required, in tandem to legislative/policy change, is a change in attitude, as well – people forget that they, are in fact, the controllers of culture, not the companies that pretend they are. Even just talking about it, making people aware pushes the issue into the visible public sphere. Hey, all in the name of progress, right? Perhaps we owe it to them to make their lives as difficult as they’re making ours…
*Thank you for your concern! I manage just fine, and I’m doing ok!!! but seriously, if you or someone you know needs help, please visit: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ and https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/help-for-depression – You Are Not Alone, Please Don’t Ignore Your Mental Health!