|By A.D. Freudenheim||
18 November 2002
We are not to be trusted, all of us, any of us, definitely not us Americans.
Ask the corporations with whom we all do business, and the answer could not be clearer that they believe that we are out for ourselves, we are greedy, and we are always on the look out for opportunities to rip them off. There are the increasingly obvious mechanisms for control that these corporations place over us: new efforts to prevent us from copying music or movies for personal use, or attempts to track us when we do so; looking to see what software and files we have on our computers; watching us when we watch television (and watching to see what we record for later viewing); or even promoting new automobile "safety" systems that can help pinpoint our car's location 24 hours a day, with or without our consent.
Then there are the more subtle, harder to track tactics that encourage companies to trade or sell information about us; the laws that have allowed companies to put the onus for protecting our privacy on us; and the constant push by well-funded Congressional lobbyists to enact changes that will make it harder for people to declare bankruptcy. (For the moment, the Europeans are in better shape on this front, with laws more heavily tilted in favor of the individual. For the moment.) The image is plain that most companies think the world's consumers a fairly undesirable bunch; you might event get the impression that they do business with us grudgingly, against their will or better judgment. There is an obvious irony in this, but let's ignore that for now. Our elected representatives seem to support these activities, since they pass the laws or restrictions that encourage such atrocious corporate behavior, and they seem to find the dollars of the corporations much more important and appealing than our basic and fundamental rights.
What is particularly frustrating about these privacy issues is that it is difficult to express their importance to most people. In fact, it seems almost as difficult to get people to care about this issue as it does to get them to vote. We are a complacent and well-satisfied population, our current economic woes notwithstanding, and other than attempts to control our access to guns - restrictions most Americans oppose - privacy issues no longer rile us up the way they once did. After all, who cares if the department store where you just bought new shoes sells your name and address to the electronics store down the street (which sells it, in turn, to someone else). Why worry if the central Visa processing center makes a note that you seem to have a preference for Kenneth Cole, based on the last four purchases you made, and they too sell your information, directly to Kenneth Cole. Aside from increasing the junk mail you receive, no one seems to think it makes much difference to the lives.
In fact, it is much easier to think about the positive aspects of all these transactions, like the fraud protection the Visa processors provide: when someone else makes a purchase using your credit card numbers, in a different location or of some object strikingly out of the ordinary for you, personally, it is easy to be grateful that Big Brother is looking out for your well being, and making sure you do not get stuck with a bill that is not actually yours. No one worries about Big Brother any more. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the increasingly self-aware capitalism of the Chinese, we have no monolithic external bogeyman scaring Americans the way that we once did. George Orwell's 1984 came and went - more than 15 years ago! - with none of the overwhelming totalitarianism that he predicted. Or so it seems.
Unfortunately, our ever-increasing reliance on technology goes hand-in-hand with our marked dependence on large, global corporations - and this makes us that much more prone to losing our privacy. The single biggest implication of this is exactly the one that Orwell predicted, where we find that we no longer live in a society that allows us to make choices, for better or worse, and suffer either the rewards or consequences of our actions. Instead we will slowly exist like caged animals, who have no opportunities to make ill-considered decisions because all options have been removed.
We will not have to decide to pay our bills, because the friendly corporations will debit our bank accounts automatically; just do not try to fight them if they make a mistake on your account, and definitely do not bother to read the fine print on the back side of the form. Transact every piece of your life using a credit card, and rest easy that you can be nailed for it later; just think of Monica Lewinsky, whose credit card-based book purchases in DC were subpoenaed by special prosecutor Ken Starr. Do not worry about synching your Palm Pilot with your office computer; after all, who is paying attention that your calendar entries for dates with your new Iranian boyfriend are being uploaded to the corporate server? Test out the new internet-based voting system from the comfort of your living room, and see whether you care that your vote also comes with information about who you are; unless the Republicans decided to physically eliminate the Democrats in Florida's Broward County, for instance, why should it matter that they know you voted for Al Gore? When your health insurance is cancelled because your insurance company caught you having a drag of your officemate's cigarette, and it was all captured on the video camera in front of your building - that's just your dumb luck, isn't it. Nor will anything change about visits to the library just because the new electronic card catalogs will make a note of your search for that book on the history of the Manhattan Project, or the magazine article about building your own super-computer - and you certainly need not worry about the friendly librarians who have been enlisted by the FBI to help identify potential threats to national security.
Privacy issues are typically areas of slow change, which makes them much more difficult to notice or worry about. The purpose of the American legal enshrinement of individual liberties was to say, clearly and without hesitation, that our government is of, by, and for us - that it fundamentally trusts us to execute our free will, even at the risk of knowing that some people will abuse these freedoms. Yet every movement forward towards a national identity card system puts our long-term behavior as individuals at risk. Likewise, as we slip into a world that allows our every movements to be monitored, we should be conscious not just of the actions we take, but of the pro-business environment we support, and think a little bit more about how much we value the protection of the individual over the growing strength of corporations. If the corporations do not trust us, we have to ask ourselves why we should trust them, either.
Copyright 2002, by A.D. Freudenheim.
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