Since the recent revelations about what the NSA has been up to, the debate about privacy has fully reinvigorated. Perhaps it never disappeared in the first place, but surely, the fear is lodged into our brains now, because even though Big Brother didn’t exist yet in 1984, there’s no telling it won’t exist in a couple of years. But is our fear of losing our privacy truly rational, or are we worried over nothing?
Before I delve into any more controversial statements, I would first like to establish two different kinds of privacy problems: there’s the NSA reading our email to find terrorists, and there’s companies/organisations finding out exactly what you do on your computer every day and passing that on to other organisations. Both of these are increasingly seen as major issues, and steps have been taken to ensure more privacy in both these fields, but in principle, they are very different.
Now, one of those differences is the extent to which the loss of privacy is personal: the NSA finds data on an individual and then uses that in whatever way they please (such as spying on foreign leaders), while companies use you merely as a number. And that difference is vital, because it is the main reason why loss of privacy on the internet isn’t a problem at all. It is something many people are extremely worried about, but the reality is that it does no harm, and, in fact, only works in our advantage.
For instance, let’s say you spend about 12 hours of your day searching the web for porn. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d say that’s probably the kind of hobby you would prefer to keep to yourself, so you wouldn’t want Google passing all that information on to the rest of the world. But the truth is… they don’t. All Google knows is that the number that represents you visited those porn websites, and all those companies/organisations they give that information to will know is that the number you represent might be interested in ads about prostitutes (assuming that is legal in your country, of course).
Ultimately, you become nothing but one more number in a statistic, a statistic that is used by companies to improve their services. To improve their services to you, and that is important for the same reasons as why I previously argued that advertisement is the most important invention of the past two centuries. Aside from that, as a blogger, I myself use that info as well, because Google tells me what search terms have been used to reach my blog, which I can then use to increase my audience even further. But I won’t ever know who hides behind that search term, and unfortunately, due to policy changes that were pressured onto them, Google now only reports a fraction of the search terms that are used to reach my blog.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the NSA is doing the right thing. Sure, it seems highly likely that by now our perception of the problem has become greatly exaggerated, because that’s what humans do best, but that doesn’t mean that what the NSA does should be accepted. Some things they do are probably fine, necessary even, but spying on foreign leaders is ridiculous, as is the fact that Muslims get much tougher screening than anyone else does. It’s wrong, because the spying is personal, and that is the kind of privacy issue that George Orwell warned us for.
But all that doesn’t mean that we should let our fear of being spied on become irrational. Especially now that the fear of Big Brother has reignited, we need to separate the good from the bad and realise that sometimes, those privacy issues are just an illusion. An irrational fear that shouldn’t be given in to. Exchange of data is important because it improves our services and makes them cheaper, free even, which is something we shouldn’t give up on just because we’re afraid that the software that handles it is going to judge our internet history. Because it won’t. Your internet history will remain your secret, whether it is passed on or not.
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