Is It Futile To Fight The Fishbowl?
There is so much personal information in so many places, it makes a goldfish in a bowl seem more private than we are. Although there are many threats to privacy from governments, quasi-private entities and new technologies, many new technologies are actually protecting privacy better, and are available to more people, than ever before.
Governments, Corporations and Social Norms Eliminate Privacy
Governments have been creating laws, rules and regulations which force disclosure of personal information or permit others to take our personal information without probable cause. Things like the USA PATRIOT Act and other legal mechanisms have limited our ability to live and act freely and voluntarily in privacy and peace. Court decisions have rendered the Fourth Amendment as relevant as the Queen of England. The government also holds us hostage by requiring us to reveal all kinds of irrelevant personal information in order to participate in many of the basic utilities of modern life, like international travel, internet service, drivers licenses, and more.
Many corporations are quasi-government actors. Phone service providers, internet service providers, banks, and many others are required by law to collect and maintain information about their customers. That information is often freely available to governments upon request, without any warrant or probable cause. Even when a company like AT&T is found potentially violating the law to invade the privacy of customers, governments protect them from prosecution.
There are also actions that we take voluntarily because it is the social norm. Many companies that provide popular services have been able to make a lot of money and become a dominant force in society because they are able to collect private information for free. Facebook and Google make their money by selling personal information about their users to advertisers and marketers. Everyone gives them that information for free. Those same companies have gotten away with a lot of shenanigans, in part, because there are no competitors that do it differently. Although there is no coercion when using these companies, like there is when using a quasi government service, there are a lot of incentives to use these services to function in modern society.
Privacy Can Still Be Maintained
Privacy is not extinct. Technology makes it easier to create, gather and mine a lot of data about individuals, but it also makes it easier to protect sensitive data.
There are a lot of free and easy ways to protect privacy. Some of those tools and techniques are very powerful, others offer only nominal protection. There are also some very expensive and very difficult strategies which may or may not provide much better protection. Each individual can decide for themselves how much or how little privacy they want and how much they are willing to pay with time, money, or effort, and then protect themselves accordingly.
In the same way that technology makes it easier to invade privacy, it also makes it easier to protect privacy. With the spread of things like open source encryption, it is actually easier to protect the privacy of electronic files that it is to invade privacy.
Control of finances in an online world may be one of the biggest challenges to those who value their privacy. The taxation, flow and exchange of money has become one of the most tightly controlled and monitored aspects of modern life. However, with the growing popularity of the use of gold and silver as a medium of exchange in person, and with the innovation of decentralized electronic currencies like Bitcoin, privacy advocates may now have powerful financial tools to protect their financial privacy.
Protecting Privacy Is A Game Of Chess
It is important to understand that protecting privacy is much like a chess match. Every chess player will lose a few pieces, some players will even sacrifice some pieces in order to gain an advantage elsewhere, the circumstances change for both players with every move, and everyone needs good strategies and tactics.
We are social creatures and have never been able to be 100% private without becoming a hermit. We must balance what information we disclose, like losing a few chess pieces, with the benefits that we gain personally or socially. With every technological innovation, with every new law and new social custom, the circumstances change for everyone. But many people don’t even know what privacy chess pieces they are dealing with or how they move, let alone have any strategy or tactics in mind.
Easily available encryption is like a knight or a bishop. If used correctly, it can be a very powerful piece on a privacy chess board. Unencumbered control of money without government influence is more like a queen. It is one of the most powerful tools that exists to protect privacy. These two tools help shift the game in favor of privacy advocates and there are many other tools and tactics available.
In the next post I will share one of the simplest and easiest ways to get the most privacy for the least cost and effort. If you can use email, you can probably do this effectively. If you can’t wait, check out HowToVanish.com for lots of similar tips and tools.
Bill Rounds will be speaking at Libertopia Festival 2011 in San Diego