It seems like a lifetime ago, but I’m remembering that high school classroom where students were discussing George Orwell’s 1984. I was the ostensible teacher, but the kids were doing just fine on their own. That day the topic was one aspect of the book that seemed to bother a lot of students— the total lack of privacy in the character’s lives. A few were getting sidetracked by the fact that, in their experience, television sets only worked as receivers, not cameras, and the idea of a television set that could watch what was going on in the room seemed a little far-fetched. Others seemed properly freaked at the very idea of someone daring to invade their privacy that way. Eventually they would work the conversation into themes of historical revisionism and thought crime.
I hadn’t thought about that classroom for years, but last week I finished reading Julia Angwin’s nonfiction Dragnet Nation, just published in February of this year, and 1984 came thundering back into my consciousness. I wonder if those students from the middle of my teaching career, now in their 40’s and 50’s, ever remember the discussions they had about privacy? Ever think of those discussions as they “like” some place of business on facebook? Or when they innocently visit another business’s website? I know I wondered naively why so much sports car related advertising springs up on my web-surfing. And it took a while before I put two and two together… as in how belonging to a Miata discussion forum and shopping for performance parts online might result in someone thinking I’d be a good target for automotive advertising.
Or do those formerly freaked out high school students ever consider that their laptops almost surely have a camera that, with the wrong malware installed from an unfriendly website, could photograph them any time the laptop is turned on.
Think I’m kidding?
Do a Google search for “Blake Robbins vs Lower Merion School District” to see the details about the Philadelphia area school district that issued 2300 laptops to its students and then activated the webcams to take and download pictures of the students doing what students do. In the picture on the left, sleeping, in others taking pill shaped objects that the assistant principal said were drugs. Blake and his parents said the pill shaped objects were Mike and Ike candies.
In addition, the school district captured screenshots of Blake’s instant messages, emails, and web research. The school’s ability to spy on students was revealed only when Blake was brought into the assistant principal’s office and accused of drug use. The ensuing publicity resulted in a quick shutdown of the surveillance program, and the school district eventually settled a lawsuit for approximately $610,000.
Obviously, this kind of misuse of power is, at the very least, rare. But the fact has been established that if people have the power to do something nefarious, someone is going to use that power. A few years ago our electronic age seemed to offer us fascinating abilities. We could communicate instantly, and for free, with friends in any part of the world. We could browse through stores from home. We could compare prices while shopping by using our phones to check a competitor’s website. We could research car prices at several area dealerships and bargain for the best deal online.
What nobody mentioned is the fact that while we innocently use our phones and cruise the internet, the National Security Agency is storing our calling records and internet history. And the cell providers are selling our information to whoever has a use for it. And corporations are tracking internet shoppers and using that information to determine the prices they offer you.
For her part, Julia Angwin prepared for writing Dragnet Nation: A Quest For Privacy, Security, and Freedom In A World of Relentless Surveillance by making a kind of game of searching out methods of evading the political and commercial dragnet. Her efforts to enlist friends and family in encrypting emails, keeping computerized records private, and doing internet searches with engines that do not save your records make for fascinating reading. For one thing, I learned to use a search engine called “DuckDuckGo” if I want any kind of privacy in my internet searches.
“DuckDuckGo” is one of a short list of search engines that do not save information about you. The downside is that, unlike Google, it does not know what you are going to ask before you type it in, (it doesn’t remember what you searched for yesterday) and it consequently is appreciably slower completing searches. But there is something appealing about the idea of evading the information dragnet once in awhile.
Truthfully, I’m not convinced that an individual can beat this system of public and private surveillance. If a store has cameras using facial recognition software (not illegal, only creepy), your only option is to not enter that store. If the NSA keeps track of all your phone calls, maybe the purported purpose is worth the loss of privacy. Preventing one Boston Marathon bombing makes the spying seem less of an atrocity.
In fact, most of us don’t object to government surveillance when the goal seems to justify it. We put up with traffic roadblocks to look for drunk drivers, we put up with drug and alcohol testing when circumstances seem to warrant it, and we are not surprised by official inspections in the workplace. And some things are beyond our control even when they seem to challenge the principles of our democracy. I don’t want to become the paranoid nut wearing the aluminum foil helmet.
On the other hand, none of us wants to learn that the laptop we carelessly left open has been photographing us for the last few days. Read Dragnet Nation for some serious incentives to start paying attention when you are being used. (And suggestions for using aluminum foil to thwart Verizon’s ability to track your cell phone.)