The Surveillance Hypocrisy

Even before the whistleblower leaked top secret information about the National Security Agency's collection of Americans' telephone and Internet records, it was no surprise that we are living in an age not too far removed from the science fictional predictions made in George Orwell's 1984, at least regarding the intrusion of unwanted eyes into our private lives. Our government might not be as malevolent as Orwell's dystopia, and technology might not be at the extreme level depicted by the ominous "Big Brother," but anyone who is shocked by the recent revelations hasn't been paying attention.

Are we really surprised when businesses and government agencies can track our movements and purchases as we become an increasingly digital-dependant society? With credit cards, debit cards, direct deposits, paper-free billing, computer transfers, and other cashless methods of buying and selling, monetary transactions have become mostly electronic. We drive through toll booths with EZPass, we swipe through mass transit with MetroCards, and parking meters and vending machines now take plastic. Maybe the term paper-trail is too archaic, but we're definitely leaving a Matrix-like e-trail as our economy becomes a techonomy (or does "e-conomy" sound better?)

We've allowed it to reach this point willingly in return for convenience. While we might shudder at being stalked or spied upon, especially in the comfort and sanctity of our own homes, we've allowed Web sites and mobile applications to collect, store, and share our personal information if it simplifies our searches, our purchases, and our social networking.

There's a distinct line, however, between letting people know that we're eating at a local restaurant or seeing a new movie, and revealing our personal conversations. We can understand the need for surveillance to counter threats to our safety, but where are our protections against authorities overstepping their bounds and making false assumptions based on what we're reading, what we're watching, or with whom we're speaking?

The hypocrisy comes in full play when we realize the arbitrariness of how all of this information is being used. It's fine, apparently, for marketers to create detailed profiles about us based on our online activities in order for them to target their advertisements at us and try to sell us what we presumably want, but it's often more difficult for the consumer to collect reliable information about a company regarding a service or product without having to go through convoluted channels to get the results they need or the answers they deserve. It's fine for governments to place surveillance cameras at intersections in order to ticket drivers who go through a yellow traffic light, but it becomes a red-tape hurdle to use those same cameras to catch vandals or other criminals in the act of breaking the law. In other words, there seems to be a correlation between revenue generation and public access to that same surveillance footage.

Smartphone manufacturers are proud of all the bells and whistles that they add to their mobile devices with each new iteration, but some of the big name brands are still hesitant to add a "kill switch" that will make their products worthless if they are stolen -- because they would rather keep maximizing their profits instead of doing what they can to decrease the incentive for thieves to steal their highly coveted products. (Apple, I'm talking to you!)

GPS devices have changed the way we travel and the way we communicate, letting people know where to go and where we are. Yet, if your GPS is stolen, apparently the technology can't be used to find the crooks reponsible.  I'm sure the companies and the authorities have valid reasons for that, but it still seems like they could do more to fix the problem and decrease the blackmarket demand. If their own interests were at stake, maybe they'd find a solution a little more rapidly.

It's more complex than just what the naysayers imply when they say, "If you have nothing to hide, you shouldn't worry about surveillance." Privacy concerns will continue to be an enormously important issue in the days and years to come.  We all should pay attention, becuase others will surely be paying attention to us.