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Some people feel like it is useless to protect privacy. Privacy pessimists already feel the ubiquitous surveillance of almost every action they take. They envision a near future when every thought, word and deed are detected recorded and archived for later reference by anyone who wants to know. The advance of technology makes it seem like privacy is dead.
Privacy Is Dead Because Of Technology?
It is true that technology is advancing to track our every move, often without our knowledge. But technology is also advancing to protect privacy in ways that were not available before. There are already many tools that we can use to protect our private information and most of them are free and easy. Tor, Truecrypt, and GnuPG are three great examples.
Unfortunately, as Julian Assange alluded to following the release of “The Spy Files,” much of the technological effort is aimed at invading privacy. But, if privacy is valuable to people, more and more privacy protecting solutions will become available. If privacy is not valuable, then nobody will read this.
The reality is that privacy protecting technology is usually easier to employ than privacy invading technologies. For example, it is free and only takes a few seconds to encrypt files or emails. To break into those emails, you need a significant amount of technical skill, time and money.
Privacy Is Dead Because Of Social Norms?
Many also look to the changing social norms that seem to punish people who don’t want to participate in social network surveillance. Idiots get paid millions to display their stupidity on TV and on the internet. Governments and advertisers can now track people like the East German Stasi could only dream. But, even Mark Zuckerburg is publicly noting the dangers of social networking. Plus, the Stasi aren’t forcing anyone to use Facebook.
The Law Is Killing Privacy?
The Patriot Act has made constant, warrantless digital searches legal. Telecommunications are controlled by strict regulation, preventing communication without government permission. Your bank accounts are under government surveillance. Death by one thousand cuts of privacy invading regulation is a real problem, but the future is not as bleak as it may appear if we look at the bigger picture.
Americans of Japanese descent have much more privacy now than they did during World War II, even though the law allowing them to be imprisoned based on nothing but their heritage is still valid. Minorities, while still brutalized by law enforcement, are brutalized much less and enjoy much greater freedom than they did under Jim Crow laws.
Encryption Technology Is A Model For Privacy
The most significant protection from unjust law is the technology that has developed to make the law irrelevant. The history of strong encryption is a good example of this. Strong encryption was developed and used by the US military several years ago. At that time, fearing the power of encryption in the hands of the enemies of the US military, it was illegal to export high level encryption technologies to other countries. It was treated as a munition.
But, other groups outside the US were able to harness the power of mathematics and develop strong encryption on their own. Now, strong encryption is so ubiquitous it is available for free to anyone with access to the internet. The law preventing the export of encryption is as useful as a law preventing people from riding their bike in a swimming pool and was severely relaxed in the US.
Many other technologies are rendering other laws irrelevant. Torrents, Tor, GnuPG and other solutions allow individuals to communicate privately. Financial transactions can take place with Bitcoin across international borders with no limits on value, no declarations, and no ability to restrict a transfer.
Keeping Privacy Alive
As with most things in life, 80% of the benefits of privacy can be attained with 20% of the effort. Focusing on just a few of the most effective privacy tools and techniques will go a long way to protecting a material amount of your personal privacy. Giving up does not do any good.
Privacy is alive. We may not be able to unplug completely from the Matrix, but we can have a material amount of privacy by using a few tools that best fit our situation. All we need is to carve out some areas where we can keep our private files, communicate anonymously and transact anonymously. Other information, like our favorite color and our favorite food can be uploaded to the Matrix without much harm done to ourselves. I have no doubt that in some ways there will be privacy battles that are lost in the future. But at the same time, I have no doubt that many solutions to protecting the most fundamental aspects of human autonomy will be developed. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle for many of the privacy protecting tools that have been, or will be developed. Long live privacy!
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