There is little doubt that advances in technology have radically changed many aspects of our lives, from healthcare to manufacturing, from supply chains to battlefields, we are experiencing an unprecedented technical revolution.
Unfortunately, technology enables the average person to leak personal information at a velocity that few understand. Take a moment and think about how much of your life intersects with technology that can be used to track your movements, record your buying patterns, log your internet usage, identify your friends, associates, place of employment, what you had for dinner, where you ate and who you were with. It may not even be you who is disclosing this information.
I recently spent some time with a friend who happens to work as a journalist with the Guardian. I was explaining how much information people disclose, both intentionally and unintentionally, and told him that I would be able to determine aspects about his movements in the past couple of weeks using only a web browser. He scoffed as I fired up twitter and plugged in his name and literally within seconds found someone who tweeted the following:
I turned to my friend and showed him that within a couple of seconds I was able to determine that he was currently in the US, where he had eaten lunch, the time he had that lunch, and who he had lunch with and I hadn’t done anything more sophisticated then typing his name into a twitter search tool.
Why is privacy so important?
The fundamental element that enables a free society is based on the premise that personal and private information is exactly that - personal and private. People may argue that most information disclosure is innocuous. Some may argue that if you have nothing to hide why would it matter if aspects of your life are disclosed.
It matters when it’s personal to you.
Loss of privacy can have a detrimental impact on the health and well being of us all. Imagine the impact on healthcare if there was no doctor-patient confidentiality. If one knew that speaking to a doctor about a personal and possibly embarrassing condition could be exposed, one would become distrustful of healthcare providers and only seek assistance under the most extreme conditions.
Imagine that what you read, where you shop, what you buy, how you handle your finances, what websites you visit, what movies and television shows you watch, and much, much more could create a profile of you that could be used to make determinations about everything from insurance coverage to employment to where you can live and what schools you or your children would be accepted into.
This may seem farfetched to some but we already track much of this information. It wouldn’t be terribly difficult to parse, correlate and segment society based on this information. The only thing that stands between an Orwellian 1984 and our reality is the hope that laws will limit the use of confidential information.
It is human nature to believe and to trust others. We want to believe that a rich Nigerian prince really does want to give us millions of dollars to help them move money to a western financial institution. We want to believe that if we forward a chain letter we will receive 7 years of good luck. We want to believe that someone somewhere really does love us and we will open that email attachment to prove it.
We live in a world without secrets and we must act accordingly. Realize that much of what you may think is confidential, isn’t. To borrow an old saying if more than one person knows something it isn’t a secret.
It is also important to know that much of what we do online can be archived forever, so before you post that picture from the office Christmas party or your treatise on Marxist ideology and the demise of the State, ask yourself do I really want everyone to see this when I’m 64?
Technology offers fantastic improvements to our lives, but we must recognize that if we share something digitally, no matter how much we may believe it is kept confidential, it can be shared with all and it can be archived forever and there is very little any of us can do about it.