Sunday, June 9, 2013

Freedom From Privacy

So the government is spying on us, you say? Listening to all our calls and reading everything we post to the Internet (even the things we set to "friends only," which does NOT include you, Mr. NSA!)? Surely this isn't so surprising. And, in any case, for most of us, it is delusionally egotistical to suppose that our private lives are interesting enough to hold the government's attention. Never mind that, logistically, there is just no way our government has the manpower to actually comb through every ordinary citizen's stuff, considering it's fairly well established that they wouldn't have the resources even to effectively monitor all sex offenders' activities. No, I imagine they're just scanning for certain key phrases ("Blackbriar" and all that) that would raise security alerts. Or, who knows, maybe there is some pervert getting paid (by you!) to read with relish your private Facebook status updates on your pathetic love life.

In any case, the news is discouraging on principle, not because it means the feds know all the embarrassing details of our lives, but because, however Obama may try to spin it as a necessary evil (and the official "deal with it" response has been about as blatantly and maddeningly anti-little guy as Microsoft's attempt to explain to consumers why the Xbox One must daily check in online (answer: because Microsoft has to look out for Microsoft)), the point is that our government has been lying to us all. Big time. Maybe many of us conspiracy theorists had seen enough spy movies to have known already not to trust the government. But even members of the liberal mainstream press are hammering the administration now. This is a broken relationship. As when your spouse cheats on you or a family member steals from you (or whatever—I can't think of a better example), though we may not have to stay angry at them forever, we can never again fully trust them, no matter how many apologies they make (and, in fact, Obama hasn't offered an apology).

As I see it, the only thing they can do now to halfway "make it right" is to give all of us access to that same information, so that everything is transparent and we're all on a level playing field.


Okay, everything I said before that I was serious about. This news is outrageous, and we shouldn't just get over it and accept Obama's call to calm down (at least until a Republican takes office, at which point let's blame that guy for everything we haven't liked over these last two terms, right?). Maybe this revelation won't have much practical effect on how we live our daily lives, as we pump gas, buy deodorant, etc. But if we stand for this, it's only a slippery slope to more really bad anti-little guy stuff.

And now, back to what I was saying about letting us spy on one another (well, it really wouldn't be spying anymore, since there wouldn't be any more secrets, only transparency), I actually had once, before any of this came out, what I thought would have been a brilliant idea for a service that I now realize would have amounted to violation of privacy on a massive scale. It would have vaguely combined Google Goggles and Facebook's Graph Search, although I had this idea before I'd ever heard of those things either. (And I should clarify, by "I had this idea," I mean I thought to myself, "Somebody ought to make this," not "I plan to and know how to make this.")

The basic idea was of an app that would tap into and interpret all the user-generated data on every social network in order to pull up info on anything we might observe in the real world. Initially, this would have been to assist with shopping. Increasingly, there are movements calling for more ethical production practices (e.g. no slave labor involved, eco-friendly), but nearly all of the most profitable companies, especially in electronics manufacturing and the garment industry, are still less than forthcoming about where stuff comes from and how it gets made. This is not information you're going to get off the tag or from the store. But what if, when shopping, you could scan the item with your smartphone (this was also before Google Glass) and get instant access to useful stats researched by people not standing to profit off the sale?

Of course, you can already do research prior to making a purchase by consulting customer reviews on merchant websites, but that's much easier for certain types of products than others. And how handy would it be if you could, right in the store, simply snap a visual of the item itself (yes, this would require a much more sophisticated version of what Google Goggles offers right now) and get the info then and there? And the info wouldn't just be from other regular consumers but from any informed blogger, or even just anyone who has shared a tip on Facebook. The service would intelligently sort the data to provide, beyond just quality reviews, details on production practices (to steer you toward ethical shopping, including providing user-suggested alternatives), pricing (including where and for what price specifically other people have seen the same item or an equivalent alternative), materials (whether it's all safe to use or wear), etc. And this info would all be drawn from what the people collectively have to say—perhaps the most effective oversight of all.

Even in the beginning, when people's contributions to the service would be indirect, all that stuff we post to social networks would constitute a wealth of data (as the NSA well knows) that, for the most part, isn't being put to best use as is (because you can't Google what's been shared on Facebook). But, as the service caught on and people recognized its usefulness, users would get into it the same way they get into all of these ego-stroking social networking services, and they would snap photos and microblog their quick opinions or tips on any item they came across throughout their day. At least, that would be the hope.

And this wouldn't just be for shopping. It would bring up data on food, flora, whatever—basically, anything that the app could identify and that anybody had ever written about online. And, in case you couldn't see where this was going, what if it could even visually ID and bring up info on people? It could, for example, alert you if the person in front of you were a sex offender. Or maybe the guy's not a criminal but just not a nice guy. Yeah, say you have a bad feeling about a date or an interview, you just look them up on the app and see not only their vitals and background but also if anyone has left a reference or tip about this person. And maybe the app wouldn't just be passively bringing up data, but maybe users would start actively leaving notes about other people as they interacted with them—like, say, "Note: this guy's a tool, and his wiener is small (ironically)."

Okay, so you can see where this idea could go wrong. It's also probably going to happen. Google Glass is already pointing us in that direction. It probably won't be the government's doing, but we also probably won't be able to expect them to have our backs and protect us against it. Rather, they'd be the first ones to try to control it for themselves, to no good end. Maybe the only real solution is just to give it to everyone equally after all. We all have secrets we'd rather keep to ourselves. Advantage, both in national security and in social circles, is gained from knowing other people's secrets when they don't know yours, while embarrassment is the result when other people know yours and you don't know theirs. Maybe we'd actually live more compassionate and freer lives if together we were all made to stand on the same side of shame, to recognize that each among us is flawed and makes mistakes, but, as we'd likely find out once everything is out in the open, no one's individual mistakes are bigger, worse, or more notable than most anyone else's. And if they are significantly worse, then those are probably the people who should be locked up, eh? And, once the playing field is leveled, we'd probably discover that it's the people in power I'm talking about, who keep the most outrageous secrets from the rest of us. (Well, maybe not worse than the psychos with the secret mass murder graveyards....)

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