Tuesday, 17 February 2015

The mis-framing of the privacy debate and how it affects YOU

Getting out of the system isn’t easy. I don’t claim to have done it, and I probably won’t be able to because one of these days I’ll need to talk to a person or buy something. And right there, I’ll be back inside just like before.

And I’m writing this on the internet, which is a big no-no if your idea is towards minimalism and escape from societal expectations. For those of us watching, you’ll already have heard the main points of the current privacy debate.

I know, this whole debate sounds as boring as watching cardboard exist, and you’re probably correct, but I assure you it’s important. A little refresher:

The National Security Agency (NSA) is the most powerful intelligence agency on the planet, and it is American. Edward Snowden was working there a little over 500 days ago before deciding to tap out and leave. But not before he had stolen millions of documents and begun leaking them to the media for maximum effect. Cue accusations, malice and downright obfuscation everywhere.

Mr Snowden’s plan was to expose the insidiousness of the NSA spying programmes, but I suggest he had it exactly backwards. Instead of taking secret files from the powerful and giving them to the disempowered, Mr Snowden was goaded into stealing from a weakening power (the government) and bolstering the growing power (the internet giants). I don’t think he noticed his mistake, but he certainly made it and almost everyone else did too.

Think about Google and what the company does every day. If everything you’ve ever written on the internet is stored somewhere in its massive server farms, then what exactly does privacy mean? And before I go any further, I’m not blaming Google for all this. I’m using them a shorthand for “Internet powerhouses of the coming feudal corporation system”.

They might tell you that your privacy is secure on Google’s servers, but that’s not the privacy you were asking for in this debate. There’s no power in letting people have privacy on the internet. Yet Google will stand in front of you swearing black and blue your information is safe from the government. That’s not what I’m worried about. What is Google doing with my information? Selling me nicer socks? I don’t think so.

Creating “safe” websites with “untrackable” structures is what we’ve been promised waits for us if we only continue to use the internet for more and more of our daily tasks. The true power is in Google pretending that people actually have privacy but retaining everything or hiring computer coders smart enough to build “safe” programs to access your data instantaneously for whatever purpose they wish.

In this debate, Google and other internet giants want you to swallow the lie that they’re fighting on your side against the tyranny of government data collectors because Google knows only one power base can be victorious here, and it won’t be the government. In fact, the debate is structured like this precisely because the government is so weak in comparison to the internet.

Who would you rather do the job of collecting and storing your digital information? Google or the NSA? “That’s easy, the NSA is basically Orwell’s Big Brother machine come to life! I don’t want that and I can’t believe you would either” Woah, slow down there, Fred the Activist. Notice the form of my question.

Remember that the NSA is the bad guy, so of course you’d say that. Do you want another go? And you can’t snarkily say “both” because I get to do the inventing of hypothetical scenarios around here, so I choose to make it a Hobson’s choice. It’s all about how you ask the question.

Then again, that’s not really my question, is it? That’s the one the media has been asking you for the last 500 days since Edward Snowden released his first files. It’s the one the system already knows how you’ll answer, because it has trained you into giving only one response.

That response will always be in the direction the system is already travelling. The form of the question, without causing so much as a twitch in Glenn Greenwald’s eye, assumes that you’re already putting private information into the internet, and that you will continue to do so.

The question only expects you to answer who you’d rather burden with the task of storing all your precious information? Is it the good guys or the bad guys? Google or the NSA? Both of tonight’s teams proudly brought to you by our platinum sponsors: MSNBC, CNN and FOX News. Give them a round of applause!

The accepted narrative spoken at you by the mouthpiece of the system – the media – knows that no one will choose to return to writing paper letters or, God forbid, sending cute little pigeons (where’s that animal cruelty article I saw on CNN recently…). The question is an assumption structured in such a way that you can’t see what it assumes.

Without wanting to sound conspiratorial, and hey, I’m not the only person saying all this, soon Google is expected to have so much data that they will effectively control our digital lives. It’ll be easier than inventing a money-printing machine because we’ve all been been conditioned in a tireless campaign to ask for a Google machine of some kind. We want this, no, we desire it.

But it wants more than just our digital lives. As useful as it might be, a tool like Google Glass is only the beginning of turning actual, stub-my-toe reality into a “data-filled” feeding tube. The internet is such a part of our lives already that Google has convinced us to ask for Google Glass ourselves, as if it was our idea. Now, if only I could master that trick for the dating world...

“So Google is actually the bad guy in this? I don’t think that’s fair. Haven’t they connected the real world with more information than it ever had?” No, you’re not listening. Google hates the fact that there is a “real world” out there. It sold us the planet-wide connection idea because we all thought information was liberating and empowering. “Yeah, I read an article on MSNBC how the world is more educated now…” Jesus...let me guess, you read that article online?

And don’t think an entire population that believes its personal existence is synonymous with its latest Facebook status update is going to revolt. Revolt against what, exactly? Let’s get this new revolution thing rolling with a strongly-worded, 140 character Tweet.

Remember the Arab Spring? It was neatly packaged by the media as a “Twitter revolution”. The internet was, again, the good guy in that struggle and the government obediently played the villain character with nary a peep from those who should know better (I’m looking at you Noam Chomsky).

Not even democracy, which was supposed to replace the autocratic regimes of the Middle East, emerged unsullied from this ongoing mess. The New York Times tells me that democracy has “failed” to take root in the region. But the excellent news is that Twitter and Facebook are firmly entrenched and ready to change Arab culture for the better!

Then again, ISIS have figured out how to use Twitter as well. Bet that wasn’t in the NYT story. I don’t suppose that matters a great deal to the internet giants that terrorists are Tweeting attack plans because all they see is screeds of juicy traffic reading the nasty Tweets (and advertising)  and maybe the odd purchase of a brand new fire-retardant Koran from Amazon.

Now, if ISIS were to decide to move offline, and convince all their loyal Twitterians (Twitterites? Twitterers?) to follow them, then we might have some trouble. “But ISIS get most of their recruits by using social media, why would they go offline”. Exactly. Wait, you’re not a Google exec are you?

Think about what Google will do with your data. Think about how much someone would know about you if all your movements and thoughts were represented by 1s and 0s. It’s yourself as data stored by a faceless corporate entity convincing you it exists for your own good.

Think about how much control  someone with the keys to that information would have. No wonder the whole game is to get us to continue using the internet at all costs. An extremely small, extremely select group of (white, male) people has never had so much power in the history of humankind.

What was your first thought 500 days ago? Did you think about snapping your iPhone in half following Mr Snowden’s revelations and going off the grid? Was the thought of government snooping overwhelming your brain with no escape and the only way out was going cold turkey on tech? Of course not.

Now ask yourself how long it took before you did another Google search after you heard about the NSA snooping revelations. Oh, you used Google to search for Mr Snowden in the first place? Huh, that’s funny.

What most people don’t realise about the privacy debate is that while they were wasting their time arguing over how much their lives have or haven’t been invaded by the NSA, Google could make all your conversations private right now if it was worth it to them. But they make too much money encouraging your conversations to be on their servers because it brings in the advertising revenue and leads you consume more products.

To see what’s really going on, start from the basics. If a product is free, then that object or thing is not the product - you are the product. Why are you being told that your privacy matters? “Well that’s a stupid question. My life is full of things I don’t want others to know”. Then why do you post all those relationship updates on Facebook? Who convinced you that only your friends could see your trip to the travel agent yesterday?

You’re getting a nice comforting, “there, there”, pat on the head from an enormously powerful internet giant which you’ve been conditioned to trust when it says your privacy is guaranteed. Of course Google doesn’t want government snooping. The NSA would be vacuuming all that tasty data you’re voluntarily giving to Facebook and Google and leaving none for them. The internet companies need you to be as exposed as possible on the internet, so long as it’s in the right direction. So they lie and tell you privacy from the government is its utmost concern.

Advocacy journalists and flabbergasted progressives writing op-eds to the NYT about the privacy debate is all part of the plan by big media outlets to Trojan Horse the public by framing the debate as a “talking point” with a goal of “raising awareness”.

But how exactly is it supposed to help privacy if people are made “aware”? Do those journalists know how much money they’ve made for the media conglomerates with their fire-and-brimstone stories?

And how much actual, real, testable, physical change has come from all this new awareness? You’re still using your iPhone and surfing the internet. We’ve already discovered that you don’t think this is a problem. But take a moment to consider what the system wanted from you the entire time. It bait-and-switched our poor brains suffering from a day spent nose-deep in a waterfall of inane Facebook posts about babies.

Understand that the idea all along was to convince you to accept a narrative leading to only one conclusion - which you’ll feel like you made all on your own - that staying on the internet is the best move right now so long as this website is taking care of my privacy. Complain about how dangerous the internet is, sure, but leave the status quo alone. Unless you’ve got a better idea about how to make insane amounts of money from billions of people, JUST DON’T LEAVE.

We are so intertwined with the system that the actual privacy problem sits right inside our precious iPhone. Even when we know it to be true we still blame the government. Which is exactly what Google wants us to do.

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