I rarely agree with former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, but her recent column for the Wall Street Journal about the effects of the loss of privacy really caught my attention. Noonan is concerned with the operation of a “massive surveillance state” by the NSA, as revealed by Edward Snowden. She focuses specifically on the threat posed to freedom of speech by the rise of the surveillance state, and, by extension, the threat to democracy.
It will have the effect of constricting freedom of expression. Americans will become careful about what they say that can be misunderstood or misinterpreted, and then too careful about what they say that can be understood. The inevitable end of surveillance is self-censorship.
She cites Nat Hentoff, a Civil Libertarian and former journalist, who claims the less privacy will shift the balance of power within democracies:
An entrenched surveillance state will change and distort the balance that allows free government to function successfully. Broad and intrusive surveillance will, definitively, put government in charge. But a republic only works, Mr. Hentoff notes, if public officials know that they—and the government itself—answer to the citizens. It doesn't work, and is distorted, if the citizens must answer to the government. And that will happen more and more if the government knows—and you know—that the government has something, or some things, on you. “The bad thing is you no longer have the one thing we're supposed to have as Americans living in a self-governing republic,” Mr. Hentoff said. “The people we elect are not your bosses, they are responsible to us.” They must answer to us. But if they increasingly control our privacy, “suddenly they're in charge if they know what you're thinking.”
I appreciate the concern about the creation of a digitial panopticon, and the resulting self censorship. However, we must remember that it is not only the government that is infringing on our privacy. We are increasingly being tracked by private companies not only online, but offline as well. Data gleamed from Internet searches, emails sent and received, reward programs at supermarkets and free wifi usage, department store cameras, online shopping history, transport smart cards, device ownership and even rubbish bins are being used to compile data and build profiles. Yes, some of these services are used voluntarily, and with full knowledge that we are sacrificing privacy, but increasingly they aren't. In some places it is not an option to use public transport without a travel card. Is it even possible to function in society without an email address anymore? It certainly isn't possible to function as a journalist or a student without one.
Add to this, our profiles are increasingly being used by companies to target us when we are most vulnerable. As much as we like to believe we are all rational consumers, impervious to the little shenanigans of corporations, it just isn't true. Research shows that something as simple as what music is played in a store, as well as how loud it is played, has at least a correlation to how long we spend in stores, as well as the quality and quantity of purchases. Research even also shows that the way Apple stores are setup, allowing consumers to “play” with the products, encourages a feeling of “ownership”, and therefore is more conducive to purchases. Consumers can, and are, subtly manipulated in a myriad of ways. But the rise of “big data” will just exacerbate the problem.
There have been reports of online ticketing websites marking up prices for Mac users and those whose internet cookies reveal they have been shopping on high end websites. Last year Target raised eyebrows by figuring out a teenage girl was pregnant before her family knew. They dug into her purchase history, matched it up with that of other women, and sent out promotional material. How long before this is more widespread? How long before our profiles, over which we have no control, condemn us to being targeted at our most vulnerable moments, or for perpetually higher prices? Surveillance by the government is not the only surveillance we should be worried about.