By Willie Johnson | United States
Americans today face a world of rapidly accelerating technological innovations, but this progress is a double-edged sword. While it has increased the comfort and convenience of those living on the first world, it has also increased the powers of the state and allowed the private sector to intrude upon the lives of common people. There are few ways that these two extremely powerful facets of society independently work towards a common goal. However, both are getting better at gathering and utilizing the information of the people. With this, it’s not hard to see the irony in the U.S. government putting the founder of Facebook on trial.
The evidence of this expanding system of monitoring is all around us, and it’s not just the worryingly extensive network of security cameras in urban areas across the globe; from the use of targeted ads (clearly the result of your search history being fed into an algorithm) to the realization that most online communications can be viewed in vivid detail by the NSA (in the name of security, of course), complete privacy seems like a nearly impossible goal. Small steps such as using a flip phone and placing tape over webcams can certainly lower one’s profile, but any connection to the conveniences of the modern word comes with a catch―giving up your personal information to organizations that don’t always have your best interests in mind.
A key difference between most public and private monitoring systems are motive and consent, both of which are vital in determining the extent to which a person’s private information can be breached. While search engines and social media companies often use the content they gather to make a profit (usually by selling it to advertisers), in many cases, they do so with the unwitting consent of the individual through impossibly long and complicated terms of service agreements. In signing these, most people are either too ignorant to realize what they are giving up or willing to sacrifice security for convenience; there are few alternatives for those in the latter category anyways.
On the other hand, government surveillance on all levels presents a much greater threat. It’s no revelation that there’s an inherent danger in a powerful federal organization infringing upon the privacy of its citizens as ours is so famous for doing. What most people need to be reminded of, however, is the monitoring that takes place on the state, local, and municipal scale. The highly publicized data leaks by the likes of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are easy to latch onto, but it’s important to consider the implications of the smaller, seemingly harmless cameras used to monitor traffic and common areas present in all towns great and small.
With that in mind, it’s also alarming to know that in several cities such as Charleston, West Virginia, governments have cooperated with local businesses to install security cameras in areas with high pedestrian traffic. Although this seems like a small, mostly inconsequential change, it represents a fusion of the two greatest threats to privacy in the world today. A combination of the innate ability of private companies to coerce customers into signing over their rights and the extreme data-gathering capabilities of U.S. government could usher in a ‘surveillance state’ more powerful than ever.
It is man, not machine, however, that is ultimately responsible for these problems. New and better technology has certainly made it easier for the parties in question to access online data, but the human tendency of sacrificing freedom for security and morality for personal gain can be blamed for the existence of the current structures of surveillance in place around the world today. Those who blame innovation for society’s issues are railing against the inevitable, and against a facet of our nature that has proven to be more beneficial than harmful to humanity as a whole.
The bottom line is, we should be mindful of any invasion of privacy in order to safeguard what little true solitude Americans have left. Every law-abiding citizen should have the rights to their own personal information and how it is utilized, but it’s likely that things will have to get whole lot worse before they get better. It is the American people who must decide when they’ve had enough. Only time will tell when that breaking point is reached, but in the meantime, the expanding powers of the state push us ever closer each day.