“Not too long ago, theorists fretted that the Internet was a place where anonymity thrived. Now, it seems, it is the place where anonymity dies.” The words of James Joyner writing in the New York Times in 2011. His observations then, more than ever now, sum up the deep paradoxes at the heart of the information age.
From the revelations of Edward Snowden, to the hugely significant decision of the European Court of Justice recently, which ruled in favour of an individual’s “right to be forgotten”, we are it seems constantly playing catch up in an attempt to understand and adapt to the changes technology is having upon our society.
As we find our lives increasingly hardwired into the burgeoning array of internet enabled devices, what some commentators have taken to calling the Internet of Things, the volume of data we generate about ourselves increases exponentially. This data the internet’s “black gold” and like the original gold rushes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there has been a wave of prospectors trying to tap into it. But is all our information in safe hands? And if it’s not do many of us even care?
In a recent article for the Guardian, SpiderOak founder Ethan Oberman admitted that his company, which provides cloud based file storage systems, had seen a 50 percent boost in signups since Edward Snowden first shone a light on the snooping activities of the NSA and later GCHQ in Britain. SpiderOak’s software embraces a concept known as ‘zero knowledge’, that is that any given server does not know what it is storing. Theoretically this means that the data you store with them is a lot safer and almost impossible to tap into.
“Privacy is a right, not a privilege,” Oberman says. “The hard part is letting privacy disappear into the background so that the user doesn’t feel – bridging those two things is very complicated.” SpiderOak’s recent success may well be indicative of a deepening concern over privacy and the consequences of a hitherto carefree approach to putting our information in the cloud, but the company’s success is far from conclusive and may simply represent a business and more security-minded minority.
A more striking example of our desire to protect our privacy has manifest itself within the labyrinthine legal system of the European Union. In a recent decision to enshrine a Spanish man’s ‘right to be forgotten’ the European Court of Justice forced Google to physically remove search engine results relating to an auction notice of his repossessed home from their search results pages. The move has opened the floodgates to a wave of ‘right to be forgotten’ requests and reignited the global debates surrounding the issue of privacy and its value compared to the right to freedom of information.
Google’s reaction to set up an online service to deal with the vast number of RTBF requests it is receiving is perhaps an understandable move from a business point of view, but may well open the floodgates to those wishing to hide links to embarrassing or potentially incriminating information on themselves. Make no mistake that some of those operating in the more murky and shadowy corners of the online reputation management industry have been rubbing their hands with glee since the ECJs decision.
Step back from the debate and these issues almost seem to be detached from the inevitable march of the technologies which engender them. We are reacting as much to technology as we are shaping it and this uncertainty often polarises opinion on either side.
Snowden’s revelations about the NSA has stirred up fears in many people of the emergence of a big brother state, something that will send shivers up the spines of former Soviet Bloc, now capitalist societies like the former East Germany. Even today German streets are surprisingly CCTV free, a consequence of a nation having had to live under the ever present gaze of the Stasi.
With revelations that the NSA even collected and stored still images of millions of Yahoo users using their own webcams, in many ways it actually seems striking that there hasn’t been more of a backlash concerning privacy online. The answer to this ambivalence may well lie in our mesmerised adulation of technology and our starry eyed excitement at the new vistas and opportunities it offers. Whilst most would agree on the whole that technology has improved our society, it may be worth remembering how important it is for all of us to have privacy, before it is really gone for good.