In 1993, The New Yorker published an amusing cartoon in which a dog sitting at a PC says to another canine: "On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog." That was so long ago that when the cartoon went viral it was circulated by fax and photocopier.
In those days, you really could be anonymous online. That wasn’t always a good thing, of course. Bullies, trolls and stalkers took advantage. But for many of us, there was something liberating and romantic about sitting alone and anonymous behind our CRT monitors.
Two decades later, we’re faced with a digital world in which our every move, our every click, our every purchase is tracked by someone. I threw a party last weekend, and I bought wine at a discount liquor chain, food at a major grocery. I have membership cards for both stores. When I swipe the cards at checkout, every single thing I buy goes into a database. Any time I use one of the credit cards in my wallet, that purchase goes into yet another database.
When I go online, websites track me, regardless of my browser's privacy settings. Sites like Facebook tag people in our pictures, and it won't be long before facial-identification software can identify individuals with a reasonable degree of accuracy.
And recently information on a huge government program that scoops up information on who we call, who we text, who calls us, and what we do on the Web came to light.
Big Data uses our online information to paint an excruciatingly detailed picture of us. Like it or not.
I’m not going to weigh in on the merits of the NSA’s eavesdropping binge. But what I will say is this: Government and business function best when there’s clarity. At the moment, nobody really know what the NSA is doing, and to what extent companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and the others linked to PRISM are cooperating. Heck, we don't even know the details of the law governing this kind of thing, because it’s interpreted by a secret court that issues secret opinions.
As to the companies involved, we had reason to be suspicious of them long before a 29-year-old NSA contractor spilled his guts to The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald. Facebook and Google have pushed the envelope on privacy countless times. Can, or should, we take Google at its word when it says it didn’t give the feds unfettered access to user data? Given the company's track record, how can we be sure?
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt made his company’s attitude on the situation quite clear during a CNBC interview:
"If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place."
Then there's Schmidt's gobstopper in an interview with The Atlantic:
"We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about."
(See more Chairman Eric sayings here.)
What we have here, as The Captain says in the film Cool Hand Luke, is a failure to communicate. Internet users need to know what is happening to their data. I'm not necessarily saying the government should stop collecting it–that’s another discussion. But people need to know what’s private these days and what is not.
Without this clarity, the United States is going to face a debilitating crisis of confidence that will damage the country and damage the Internet as the leading form of communication in the 21st Century.
Image: Peter Steiner in the July 5, 1993 issue of The New Yorker, via Wikipedia