On the one hand, we tend to get fired up when it comes to civil or political rights - whether about gender, ethnic diversity, sexual orientation or drugs. In all these areas, we bristle at injustice and inequity, limits on our freedoms or unnecessary government infringements.
There are many recent examples, but the one that really struck me: the response after the US Supreme Court rulings last year that affirmed the rights of same-sex married couples. One friend, who’s normally totally disinterested by politics, was rejoicing on Facebook. It captured her attention and emotions in a way that other affairs of state (say, a senate expense scandal?) never would.
It makes sense that rights issues resonate. They are about our basic freedoms and they often hinge on relatively simple questions (for instance, should gay couples have the same rights as straight ones?). They feel more tangible and are more emotional than other public policy issues like pensions or affordable housing. It was the same for previous generations, who marched for civil rights, gender equality and peace (like here).
It’s strange then that our privacy rights don’t seem to provoke the same response.
The revelations by US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden were breathtaking. American spy agencies have been conducting widespread, often illegal online surveillance of US citizens and friendly countries. They’ve accessed everything from emails and browser searches to wireless phone records. To do so, they’ve undermining web encryption technologies and broken into the data centres of global tech giants like Google and Yahoo.
Canada’s spy agencies, which work closely with their American cousins, have admitted to spying on Canadians. They’ve also been accused of spying on the Brazilian government and misleading the judges that oversee their covert activities.
This news generated mostly shrugs from my friends.
You’d think that for a generation that is constantly connected (does this hit home at all?!), freedom from state or commercial intrusion in our lives would seem as fundamental as other rights. Yet, not only does there seem to be less concern about privacy, but we seem alarmingly comfortable sharing every little detail about ourselves on Facebook.
This is not just a philosophical issue. Making our personal information available creates immense commercial value for web firms like Google that capture, analyze and sell it. It also leaves us vulnerable in certain ways – to cybercriminals, prospective employers trolling for our racy party photos, online bullying and exploitation, and apparently to the surveillance of our own governments. An amazing new book provides a scary wake-up call about how the online world works and the threats it poses.
So, why then doesn’t this get us fired up? I’m not sure, but here are a few thoughts.
First off, not all younger Canadians are alike in how they interact online. Today’s teens and 20-somethings are ‘digital natives’ who’ve grown up online, whereas those in their 30s and 40s are ‘digital migrants’ that moved online during their adulthood. For web 2.0 thinkers like Don Tapscott who worry about the cavalier treatment of personal info online, they’re concerned mostly with the younger group. So, generalizations can be misleading.
A second possibility: we simply might not understand the issues at stake. I, for instance, have multiple internet-connected online devices and email accounts (smartphone, laptop, tablet and at least 4 emails...), pay my bills and buy my books online, and have been guilty on many occasions of TWW (or ‘texting/tweeting-while-walking’).
Other than basic fraud like the Nigerian 419 scam, I know little about the existing and emerging online threats to my personal or financial information. I also have little sense of what government intelligence agencies are up to online, whether they’re accessing my information, or what they want it for. If I was more aware, would I be more concerned?
A third possibility is that privacy is simply no longer possible in our new, wired world. In Citizenville, a book about e-government, former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome writes: "Worrying about privacy at this point is like worrying about how to stop a tsunami. You can't do it. You can only prepare as best you can for the consequences."
I see his point, but I'm still not sure we should just concede that Facebook, Google and our governments should have unfettered access to whatever details of our personal lives we reveal online. There has to be some tech age balance between transparency and privacy.
What do you think?