March 17, 2000
The pace of the on-going technological assault upon privacy is dizzying. From every direction--local, state and federal government; business small, large, old and new, profit and non-profit--every animal, vegetable, and mineral that leaves the faintest information trail is now the target of ever more ingenious tracking, trapping, gathering, sorting, cataloging, profiling, data-mining and data-exchanging schemes.
And the already dizzy pace is only going going to pick up after the Y2K hurdle is cleared. The end of the world averted--their world, that is--legions of data-hungry institutions will be able to devote their full attention and the full power of their newly refurbished, Y2K-compliant, fully inter-networked, faster than ever data-crunching arsenal to pursuing the Great Hunt in which we and everything we have, want, see, hear, say, and do are no more than so much digital prey.
Not surprisingly, the most organized and articulate resistance to the assault on privacy can be found on Internet. Since the online and plugged-in are probably the most extensive and intensive users of information technology, they are also the easiest and most affluent prey in the digital forest, leaving information trails as broad as the proverbial "Information Superhighway" itself. Despite heroic efforts to discover and respond to the multiplying threats, even this most organized resistance barely manages to keep up with the assault on privacy that these days seems to race ahead of even the hardware-software revolution itself.
All the major privacy rights sites share a tone of breathless stridency and terror, as if aware that either no one's really listening or if they are it's probably too late. Start with the following short list, check them out. Read and follow their maze of links to other sites and endless documents. The "plot" will thicken. You, too, are sure to feel that creepy tingling of justified paranoia travel up your spine, lodging itself somewhere back behind your eyeballs, deep inside your skull, the one place where you can't see. It's not somebody that's watching; it's almost everybody.
Perhaps the most difficult challenge faced by privacy rights advocates in mobilizing themselves and the general public is deciding where to concentrate their energies and how to characterize the enemy. The assault comes from so many and such shifting directions, and there are seemingly so many unlikely heroes and villains changing places from moment to moment, that it's easy to get lost and in doing so lose the means of realistically and effectively communicating the situation to the public at large.
For example, in the battle for secure, encrypted online communication for private citizens, major international corporations and especially banking institutions appear firm and powerful allies against the relentless quest of the domestic and national security state for a universal wire-tapping free fire zone. Yet, short of the courts, the federal government, particularly its administrative branch, is the public's only potentially effective ally against the same corporate and, today especially, banking powers in their drive for universal, cradle-to-grave data exchange over every aspect of their customer's lives. Of course, this is the same federal government that, in the processes of "reforming" banking law, is opening the door to the sharing of health data among insurers and lenders merged under the same corporate "roof."
Even the champions of privacy themselves are not excluded from this bizarre dance of heroes and villains, since privacy advocates have emerged as formidable opponents of national health care, which under any realistic scheme would require some form of recipient identification and database. Few of these digital-haves who champion privacy at the expense of universal health care bother to reflect that it's only they, the affluent and well-employed who already have secure health care, who could possibly be scared to death by the prospect of being caught in the act of saving their own and their family's lives. Those without would be fools not to take the trade-off as a good one. And the inability of the champions of privacy, particularly the ACLU, to see their own privilege is part of their difficulty in reaching the general public.
Another part of the difficulty in getting the message out about Big Brother, perhaps the largest part, is the legacy, the renown of Orwell's 1984. Orwell's Big Brother is the State. And that message about the danger of the State hits home in many countries around the world governed by various types of authoritarian, totalitarian, bureaucratic and closed oligarchic regimes. It also hits home in America, where presumably that State is constitutionally less of a threat, due to long-standing traditional suspicion, supremely exploited over the last two decades by Reagan and his right-wing heirs with their slogan, "Get Big Government Off Our Backs."
The problem with the slogan, the problem with the notion that "democracy means everybody taking care of themselves," is obvious, though hardly ever stated publicly, even by Democrats. Disempowering Big Government accomplishes little more than clearing the field for Big Business. The notion that democracy means everybody, from poverty-level single working mothers to a Bill Gates or a Donald Trump or, more powerful still, an AT & T or a Disney, each separately talking care of themselves as best they can without regard for each other, is patently absurd. Yet it's the standard stuff of our corporate media-orchestrated political discourse.
The champions of privacy know that business databases are as great threat as any government database. But it's a daunting task convincing average Americans that their precious freedom to shop with supermarket discount cards is only a ploy of Big Corporate Brother. As media pressure to "plug in" mounts, it's even harder to convince them that they've a stake in concealing their browsing choices from new wave Internet marketing scams such as alladvantage.com, which pays users directly to keep adbanners and browsing-trackers on their desktop, or peoplepc.com, which offers a "free pc" and Internet access for $24.95 a month. Peoplepc.com, its operation and television ad campaign massively financed by Japanese venture capital giant SoftBank, has the gall to display as it's corporate slogan the 1960's anti-government cry "Power to the People." They might as well hang out a sign: "Orwell's NewSpeak Spoken Here." But few would notice. By now most Americans, who were capable of outrage at Clinton's obvious fumbling to conceal his tawdry Lewinski affair, don't even register the scale of lying that comes their way through advertising. By now, commercials are just entertainment--"The Funniest Commercials You've Never Seen"--the way shopping is just something to do with your free time.
"Britain now has among the world's highest number of CCTV cameras spying on its residents" ("London's Big, Bad Brothers," Wired, October 19,1999).
In what is thought to be the city's first Internet lineup of suspects, police posted 72 photos that were taken mainly by closed-circuit TV cameras. The suspects are wanted for inciting riots at the Carnival Against Capitalism on 18 June" ("Bobbing for Hooligans on Web," Wired, November 1,1999).
The following pages show photographs of:
- persons wanted for offences committed on that day who are currently unidentified
- persons who have been identified but not traced
- those who have been arrested, charged with offences, released on bail and subsequently failed to appear at court
City of London Police