Privacy – Have we reached the point of not return?

The fallout from the NSA PRISM surveillance program continues. A number of web services are shutting down out of privacy concerns for their users, with the latest being Groklaw, a community site that reviewed and commented on legal matters. Pamela Jones, who runs the site, left an emotional post about why she shut down her site which got me thinking, have we reached the point of no return on privacy?

If you don’t have time to read her post, which I would strongly recommend you do, she comments on why having privacy is so important in a democracy governed by the rule of law. One of the most important points she makes is a referencing a book by Janna Malamud Smith entitled “Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life”, where she says:

…the point of the book is that privacy is vital to being human, which is why one of the worst punishments there is is total surveillance….

Now comes the revelation via the Wall Street Journal that the NSA can read up to 75% of all US Internet traffic. Once an entity, government or non-government, has access to that much information, would they ever relinquish it? The better question to ask might be, why would they want to relinquish it?

As we know, information is knowledge, and knowledge is power. The ability to know what anyone is doing at anytime is powerful. From my past experience, once someone has access to that amount of power, there’s a tendency to abuse it, and to justify it while they do it. Have we already forgotten the lessons learned of scandals like Watergate?

It makes me worry that we’ve passed a point of no return. If our government has created laws and special courts that justify their right to monitor everything we say and do, what are the chances that the internet that we know and use today will ever be private and free again? Just like those temporary taxes that somehow never go away, my gut tells me that the privacy that we’ve lost will never be returned.

On top of that are the services and products that are here or coming that will erode even more of our privacy. Back when I was in high school and college, it was possible to go out, commit a few indiscretions, and only have your friends who were present to answer to for your actions. Today, everything you do is subject to permanency on Facebook or Twitter, and soon, products like Google Glass will be able to capture your every movement, whether you know the person wearing them or not. Information will be in the public domain for anyone – friends, family, employers and government – to watch what you do. If you’re at all concerned about privacy, it’s a scary thought.

All in all, it’s a shame and a sad state of affairs. As a friend of mine told me today, he thought that the internet would be the greatest legacy of our generation, a free and open portal that would allow for the sharing and growth of knowledge. Instead, the internet may turn out to be the scourge of our generation, the invention that enabled the totalitarian state that George Orwell foretold of in 1984 and stripped us of our personal privacy and freedoms.

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