From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

December 20, 2003*: They've got a little list.

One year after the attacks on the World Trade Center the Pew Internet & American Life Project issued a report on how, in the aftermath of the attacks, Americans were changing the ways in which they related to the internet. That report covered numerous aspects of internet use that underwent change, examining both personal and institutional (government) use. News reports (here, for instance) focused on the fact that government agencies were limiting access to a great deal of information that previously had been easily accessible. A BBC report focused on the reaction of U.S. citizens to this change:

More than two-thirds of Americans are not concerned that the US Government censored websites as part of the war on terrorism.
Not only government agencies, however, were reconsidering what they wanted to make public and what they didn't. Many individuals who had previously uploaded large quantities of personal information to their web sites were now removing parts of those sites, or limiting access to them. We were witnessing what was perhaps a fundamental change in the relationship people have with the internet. After an initial flowering of openness, it seemed that people were taking a step back from being public, preferring to protect their privacy instead.

Well before the attacks on the World Trade Center the issue of privacy and the internet was very hotly debated. As of this writing, the index of the Open Directory Project lists 283 sites devoted to privacy on the internet (about a third of which are devoted to tools for insuring privacy). And of course the issue of internet privacy was part of a larger issue of whether a built-in aspect of modern, technological society was an ongoing collection of data about each and every one of us, such that without proper safeguards we're in constant danger of some agency choosing to know our secrets.

Do we have reason to fear that the information that we place on our web sites, or post to discussion forums, or perhaps make available for P2P sharing, might be used to our disadvantage? Should we be more careful than we are about what we do with this information? Is Big Brother (or somebody else) really snooping on us? Are we leaving tracks of our activities which are so clear and obvious that it's hard not to snoop on us? The answer may well be yes. It may well be that the ongoing battle for privacy was lost long ago, not because we don't have feasible means of covering our tracks, but because today we have so many tracks that even with the best of methods, we can't cover them all. So even if we don't have paranoiac tendencies (and many of us do) it's hard not to get the feeling that we leave possibly incriminating information about ourselves just about everywhere.

To my mind there's definitely something distressing in so many people not being concerned that information that was once available on the web is now being withheld. Not long ago it seemed that people felt that access to just about anything was a right, and now it seems that, for security reasons, out of the fear that information might fall into the wrong hands, many are quite willing to forfeit that right. But of course that's only one side of the issue. Are those who are willing to let the government limit their access to information also willing to let that same government gather more and more information about them? Should they feel threatened by this possibility?

David Brin, author of The Transparent Society, sees this incessant gathering of information as an built-in aspect of our technological society. In his opinion, however, it doesn't take sides. Inherently, it's neither a threat nor a promise. Though governments or other institutions, on the one hand, can use information about us for nefarious purposes, alert citizens can, on the other, use that same gathering of information for beneficial purposes. Brin offers KinderCam, a business that sets up web cameras in kindergartens and allows parents to log in and view their kids throughout their day, as one small example of both possibilities:
Mothers on business trips, fathers who live out of state, as well as distant grandparents can drop in on their child daily. Drawbacks? Overprotective parents may check compulsively. And now other parents can observe your child misbehaving!
So Big Brother may be watching, but it may just be Mommy. That's part of the confusing reality of a society that's constantly gathering information about us.

Ultimately it may well be that the most healthy, and logical, response to all this information gathering is simply to go on living the lives we've chosen to live. Even if someone is trying to catch us, the databases that store information on us are so vast it's going to be hard to pinpoint us. Is somebody really going to watch all the video cameras set up at countless street corners? Can a government invest both the financial and the human resources necessary to actually sift through whatever information gets stored? Sure, all of us have something that we'd prefer to hide, and yes, that camera might just record it, and that database will probably store it. But if that stops us from pushing a bit harder on the gas pedal, or from buying a bit more junk food than is advisable, or from listening to music in public that makes others classify us as outdated, the problem isn't with the technology. It's with us.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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