Emails, ATM cards, telephone bills, vehicle registrations, status updates on Facebook, magazine subscriptions, census surveys – even checking out books from the public library – taken together form an informational landscape that is easily mapped and mined by businesses and state agencies. How prevalent is the practice? One can’t be sure but consider a NY Times article last June which reported that the NSA “routinely examine(s) large volumes of Americans’ e-mail messages without court warrants.” Consider further the opening paragraphs of Justin Elliot’s December 4, 2009 piece in Talking Points Memo, “Police Tapped Sprint Customer GPS Data 8 Million Times in A Year.”
Under a new system set up by Sprint, law enforcement agencies have gotten GPS data from the company about its wireless customers 8 million times in about a year, raising a host of questions about consumer privacy, transparency, and oversight of how police obtain location data.
What this means -- and what many wireless customers no doubt do not realize -- is that with a few keystrokes, police can determine in real time the location of a cell phone user through automated systems set up by the phone companies.
The technological and business boom of the 1990s became politicized radically in the aftermath of 9/11, as the legitimization of surrendering privacy took on new urgency with the War on Terror. Yet aside from the obvious “questions raised” by a few privacy advocates, Americans have been willing to go on their way seemingly oblivious to what Scott Horton, in Harper’s, 12/8/09, refers to as “the harmonious relationship that has arisen between telecommunications service providers—oblivious to federal and state criminal law requiring them to protect the privacy of their customers—and the Justice Department.”
Ever so eager to buy and brandish the latest digital accoutrement advertised, (“access,” “faster,” “more freedom,”) Americans have become addicted to connectivity because it enables us to organize our personal and professional lives, to manage heaps of data, and elicit contact with others. Digital technologies also activate an endless array of confessions, (in effect, informational doppelgangers,) which get sorted and calibrated into various demographics by companies eager to improve their marketing strategies. (I wonder if political polling is simply a kind of surveillance people simply consent to?) What the increases in militarism and law-enforcement over the last eight years illustrate, as well as what the asymmetries which access to databases obviously implies, is that the effects of concentrated power will only encroach deeper into the social body at large.
The chilling irony, I imagine, is that the discourse of privacy remains alive and kicking as the very basis for companies to prevent members of the public from accessing information that has been gathered about them. In other words, privacy rights have become the basis for refusing public access to facts and data gathered about it!