I’ve Got a Secret

My wife exploded at me because I answered a question. I had been making my way through the housewhile watching a TED talk on my Nexus 7.  I like the talks given on this media because they deal with virtually every subject imaginable, and often from unexpected perspectives. Okay, and some very expected perspectives too. Anyway, my wife overheard the last little bit of Gary Kovacks talk on Tracking the Trackers, an informational piece that explained how our actions on the Internet are observed and recorded –with and without our permission, usually without. What my wife heard was Gary talking about how he had installed a Firefox browser add-on that tracked the trackers watching his activity and what resulted from his daughter spending two hours online.

In that two hours, about 130 different trackers had tagged onto his daughters movements, and were storing where she went, what she read, who she interacted with (and for how long), and on and on. Kovacs said that this was the point that his technologist hat came off and his parent hat went on –and he became outraged. Paraphrased, he said “Imagine if you looked up and saw all of these people with cameras and notebooks out, following your child and recording everything he or she did. You’d take action. You wouldn’t sit around and say ‘oh well,’ you’d do something. Perhaps not a good something, but you’d certainly do something.”

“So,” said my wife, that’s why I don’t do email or messaging or use the Internet.”

“That’s not really any kind of help.” I replied. “You can’t get away from this stuff.”

“I don’t participate. I hate that they do all of that stuff.”

“Well then, I guess it’s time for you to throw away all means of communication. No cell phone, no home phone, no Internet. No television.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Look, there really isn’t much you can do about people following you these days. It doesn’t matter what you use in your phone, it still has a GPS transmitter in it that cannot be shut off, placed there by federal mandate in support of the E911 network. So they can trace your call in emergencies when you’re unable to communicate.”

“So, what does that have to do with this tracking stuff?”

“You didn’t think the government was the only one watching the output of your cellphone did you? The phone companies certainly are, and there are other companies that track you as well. Just having that bug on you tells them where you go and when you go there, it can identify the GPS coordinates of your starting and destination points, how long it took you to get there, how fast you drove and what routes you took. And, actually, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When you shop and use your credit card, that information can be coupled with the GPS info, and your Internet activities added as well –shoot, when you come down to it, it’s entirely possible for a lot of people to know as much about your day as you do. And the fact that you try to leave the smallest digital footprint possible doesn’t make you immune.”

That’s when she exploded. “I just asked what you were watching, I didn’t need to hear that horror story. Dammit, I don’t want people knowing what I do, it’s none of anyone’s business!”

“So, uh, you’d rather stroll through life completely ignorant? Ignorance is bliss? Is that right? I’m glad that people like Kovacs and even little dudes like me spout off about this stuff. If we know about it, and if we, as a people, use our democracy, then we can get a grip on the aspects of tracking –and other intrusions. But sticking your head in the sand, shooting the messenger, or just getting pissed off isn’t helping. I mean, come on. Just a few weeks ago you were talking about how ignorant all of the people voting for Romney were. You wondered aloud how women could betray themselves and their reproductive rights by voting the Republican ticket. That was you talking about how uninformed that people kept themselves for one reason or another and how it betrayed them, or almost did. Yet here you are advocating that I not answer your questions and tell you the truth because you can’t handle the truth!” I said, immitating the signature moment of A Few Good Men.

But the thing is, our privacy really is in tatters, and for no real good. I was thinking about Adam Lanza, shooting his mother and then driving over to the Sandy Hook Elementary School. I wondered why, considering all of the tracking being done, no red flags of any sort were raised. We were promised greater safety for the sacrificing of a number of our Constitutional Rights. This was levied upon us to bring to the forefront those individuals who intended to do harm so they might be intercepted and the appropriate action taken. Perhaps a whole bunch of marketing firms were queuing up advertisements for Rugers, Remingtons, Glocks, Colts and Mossbergs, and it would be interesting to see what the disturbed 20 year old Lanza’s online activities drew to his inbox as a result of their tracking. My belief is, that if the marketers could see it, then law enforcement should have as well. After all, it was their idea!  Of course, this is an aside and perhaps worth asking more questions about later. Right now I’m talking about what privacy we still have.

We have all heard of or been involved in challenges to so called “photo lights.” That’s where they have robotically operated cameras snap photos of traffic infractors who run the lights and send out tickets. People were outraged that “Big Brother” would be watching and how much more sporting the game was when actual police officers had to catch you breaking the law. But stop and think about all of the cameras that there are on the roads these days. Then think about all of the cameras that for everything from security to weather monitoring are focused on us everywhere. Know that in the modern digitial world, the vast majority of them are online and so totally unrelated camera sets can be tied together to create a new set of cameras. So now that our cell phone has told them where we are, we can actually see us going to and from the places we visit. Certainly there are blank spots in the coverage, but as time goes by, those spots are being filled in, and quickly. It only costs a few cents these days to build a high definition camera –of the type that gets mounted for utilitarian uses like traffic monitoring. 

But also think about the thousands of people who are snap, snap, snapping the day away and posting to the social media. If you think about it, someone could, learning as they go, turn themselves into super sleuths able to fill in the hours of some virtual stranger at will. It’s actually a trremendously depressing –and alarming picture we’ve drawn for ourselves here. The thing is, people have, on some level, a underestanding that they’re being watched. There’s an information ninja lurking in the shadows, but not really caring if you see him there or not. He’s still watching. And it’s happening because we let it happen. Our political system –a road-blocking congress and petty party grievances have turned our representation into overpaid feather bedders with too many days off– is the way it is because we, as a people, are not demanding better. There are as meany reasons as there are people why we all don’t have the time to look into who’s in charge, what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it. We are not a bad or selfish people; but we are, in the most part, blissfully ignorant because of all of those excuses we have for not staying informed and in control of our schools, government and marketplace. 

Think again of the image of hundreds of people following you and all of the members of your family, your friends, business associates and co-workers, constantly taking photographs and making notes. Think again of how easy it is to stitch all of the collected data together to paint a full color image of your movements and personal interactions. Think about how you would feel about that.

And then think about the fact that that is exactly what’s happening to you right now.