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What the Price of Privacy
Why do we insist on spying on ourselves?

I don't think Zbigniew Brzezinski is a very nice man, but whatever you may say about him, he is brilliant and a visionary. Brzezinski has been involved in some way with every U.S. government since the late sixties, especially in relation to foreign policy.

In 1970 he wrote, "Unhindered by the restraints of traditional liberal values, this [hidden controlling] elite would not hesitate to achieve its political ends by using the latest modern techniques for influencing public behavior and keeping society under close surveillance and control", and "The technetronic era involves the gradual appearance of a more controlled society. Such a society would be dominated by an elite, unrestrained by traditional values. Soon it will be possible to assert almost continuous surveillance over every citizen and maintain up-to-date complete files containing even the most personal information about the citizen. These files will be subject to instantaneous retrieval by the authorities."

Let's take a snapshot at the level of technology in 1970 when these words were penned. The fastest commercially available computer at the was the I.B.M. 360, huge boxes of transistors (no IC's yet) that needed more space than your lounge room, on a raised floor for cabling and continuous cooling. The computer power of the 360 was far less than the first personal computers. I programmed a model 50 in the early seventies, and I operated it too -- yes you needed a pilot to keep the thing alive and fed. Computer programs were entered on punched cards, one card per line of the program.

But back then, we thought they were great powerful machines used to solve almost anything.

In 1970, the precursor of the Internet had just sent its first message. Known then as ARPAnet, it was set up by the U.S. Department of Defense to connect mainframe computers at four U.S. universities (UCLA, UCSB, Stanford and Utah) carrying out defence research projects. While the number and power of computers on the net increased each year, only government and academia were given access to it. It took another twenty-five years until the network was opened to the public and commercial users. The World Wide Web, the vehicle which has become the default access for all Internet applications, was added at around the same time.

With this "simple" technology, I must admit amazement at anyone who could predict, forty years ago, the control that the "ruling elite" would exert on each and every one of us using modern scientific or technological means. No matter how smart Zbigie may be and how large the resources of the people for whom he worked may have been, how was he so certain as to put his prophesies into writing in BETWEEN TWO AGES America's Role in the Technetronic Era for posterity.

Let's have a look at how our fearless leaders may amass information on us.

Passports were once nothing more than a document which facilitated travel to foreign lands by identifying you as a bone fide citizen of your homeland. Not too many "regular" people travelled outside their home country -- it was expensive and time consuming. Today international travel is ubiquitous and your passport is a [electronic] database of personal information. Each time you cross into a new nation, that government updates your information in their database. Information you assumed you provided only to your own government's interior or foreign ministry travels far and wide.

Your drivers license and credit cards may already, or soon will, carry this type of biometric data. The data are readable by a small simple scanner, from as far away as a few hundred metres.

Income tax departments everywhere collect information. They need to know a lot about you in order to calculate your tax bill. Where you live, type of housing, marital status, dependent children, deductible medical expenses (and you thought only Obama's new medical system was designed to collect your medical information). Lots more. This information too does not remain locked in the vaults of your local tax department. Most countries have tax treaties with most other nations. What is a tax treaty? It is an agreement between two governments to trade information on you and your financial status.

Many professionals must register with what in the old days were called guilds. Today they are referred to as colleges or professional institutions; doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, engineers, psychologists, teachers . . . . All of these guilds collect fees to finance the effective collection of more information on us.

Most governments take a population census around every ten years. This allows them to update their information on you.

The above are some of the obvious overt means of data collection. There are others too. Children go to school. That's an opening to collect more family data. Everyone is the member of some sort of medical fund or insurance scheme and has life assurance;. . . .

Nothing above is new. But these, you may say, are independent databases, maintained by independent authorities. I can only say you're welcome to believe it any way you want.

We have no idea of how information on us is collected on a covert basis. I don't want to hazard a guess, but be certain that the collection is taking place. After East Germany fell, everyday people were given access to the secret police, the Stasi, files. Most could not believe who had been informing on them: wives, boyfriends, colleagues, neighbours, the corner grocer. And the scope was in minute detail. I'm not insinuating that the process is the same in the West, or even in Israel, but there are many ways of collecting information. What Brzezinski was certainly correct about was the immediacy of data retrieval. Look up almost anyone on Google. If they were ever mentioned on any web page, you too can find something about them.

But the largest source of data on any of us is today provided, quite freely, by none other than -- ourselves. Social network systems are designed to advertise what we are doing, thinking and eating right now; who we love, hate and meet; what interests us and to what we are adverse.

Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Plaxo . . . the list of networks is growing and the number of members and number of posts grows, exceeding all expectations. You may say, "well these are all private posts". Are they?

Twitter is extremely public. The only difference between a "registered" follower and everyone else with a computing device (desktop, laptop, palmtop, handheld, cellphone) is that "followers" are immediately informed of status changes. Anyone can look at your status or tweets (how cute), not just today's, but going back to day one. Facebook may give you the opportunity to delete your post, called a notification (that's not completely true because your friends may receive your notifications by email, which can't self-destruct if you delete), but as far as I can see Twitter doesn't. Skype seems to maintain your phone-calls, chats and SMS's forever.

Re private posts? Privacy may be an assumption by many. An assumption that the networks are really secure, an assumption that the people running the networks are not allowing anyone else "in", that you can trust them, that they are not "working" for someone else, that someone with inside access is not being blackmailed.

But even if they are all honest and good and trustworthy . . . I have "friends" who have hundreds and even thousands of "friends"! Of course that's not possible and I wonder if they ever go through their friends list and cull unknowns and unremembereds. I think they would be surprised to see how many they "don't remember". The way the system is configured it would probably take you a full day at your screen to work through a thousand "friends" on your list.

People are encouraged to build up their lists. My "friend" Ray posted the other day, "who will be my number 400". I looked . . . and yes he had 399 friends (today he has 402!) I remember a few weeks ago he had a similar post for the 300th.

I think it may now be illegal in most countries, but many people were "asked" to befriend their bosses and other seniors in their workplace, or asked to provide access to their social network pages at job interviews. So much for privacy. And if you agreed, did you remember to unfriend later?

We are but willing partners in our own demise. We partner government in revealing our intimate and most cherished possession -- ourselves.

27th June, 2010    

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