Saturday, August 9, 2008

Our silly obsession with online privacy

I was reading Slashdot today when I came across this posting by someone who had suddenly realized that they'd handed way too much data to Google and were now worried about the privacy implications of doing so. Their concern, while probably valid, was one of total victimization.

'Google has taken over my life', the post said and then went on to detail how, over the years, he'd slowly moved all of his computing into the cloud by using Google services. First, it was email, then it was calendaring, then documents, and now, evil Google ruled his life and owned his data.

Statements like that really piss me off and here's why: Google didn't 'take over' this guys life any more than Microsoft has 'taken over' your computer with Windows. We all make concessions based on convenience and we always have choices. This user had, for convenience, chosen to hand over more and more of his data to a company that, at some point, could place his privacy at risk. Google didn't force him to do that. Google didn't send armed bands of Ajax driven data ninjas to his house to force him to hand over his data so they could increase dominance.

He did so because it was convenient.
He did so of his own free will.

But it's always easier to whine about an evil corporation than take any sort of personal responsibility for one's own actions. Besides, the whole 'corporations are evil' thing is really hot right now so why not go with it?

I've never really understood our obsession with our 'right to privacy' anyway. I mean, who cares if your data is handed over to government or law enforcement? Who cares if some analyst at the NSA learns about your embarrassing spanking fetish or that you like to run around your house naked while beating yourself with a small whip?

What difference will it make?

These are not people who you will ever meet and even if they shared every single shred of your online data with their friends and got a good laugh, it probably wouldn't effect your life at all because these are people who aren't in any way connected to your life.

Yes, I hear the cries out there: 'But Anthony, what if they get my social security number, credit card number, or other personal information'?

They already have it.

'But what if the data they have prevents me from getting a job or some other important thing in my life'?

Shouldn't have put it online.

I think what surprises me the most is the seeming belief that some government analysts have been hired just to sit around all day and read random email, view random photos, and the like. That isn't how it works. With over 50 billion email messages crossing the globe every single day (not to mention IM's, photos, tweets, etc), it should be obvious to anyone with half a brain that this isn't the way things operate. They function in the world of keyword searches, expression matches, and the like. Sure, if you make a statement like 'I'm going to kill the president' in a short story you write, it might trip some sort of trigger and get that story read, But the analyst is smart enough to quickly see it's a work of fiction and move on.

And, has any damage been done to you just by the fact that someone read something private? Some random stranger into who's office you could walk in tomorrow and they wouldn't even know it was you?

Of course not. And that is why this current obsession with online privacy from government surveillance is downright silly. The old adage stands true: if you have nothing to hide there is nothing to worry about.

Lastly, everyone who is paranoid about online privacy should consider this: even without being piped to some government agency, every single thing you do online is recorded and traceable to you for at least a little while. Every website you visit, every IM you send, every email you exchange is traceable to you and usually stored somewhere.

Privacy on the Internet? It doesn't exist.
And, if you think you have it, it's probably an illusion.

Or a delusion.
Get over it.

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