The Sunday New York Times is a tradition in the Cringely household. Awaken from a restful slumber, consume a sit-down breakfast, and peacefully peruse the satisfyingly heavy and voluminous Sunday edition. So it pissed me off -- all over again -- this past weekend when I got to Margaret Atwood's op-ed piece on the NSA infiltrating the World of Warcraft online multiplayer game.
As a lowly industry rag scribe, I have no problem admitting Atwood's acclaimed words pack a punch I can't equal, and in her prose, it hit me: The NSA has crossed the boundaries of good taste. We can't buy anything online or in meatspace, read anything, say anything on my phone, even email anything to friends without knowing, worrying that one of the Sauron All-Seeing-Eye servers is watching, tracking, and recording. Now we can't even pretend in private while playing a game that has no bearing on real life? Are you kidding?
[ Trolls, orcs, and spooks: The breaching of World of Warcraft | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter and follow Cringely on Twitter. | Check out InfoWorld TechBrief, your source for quick, smart views on the news you'll be talking about -- subscribe today. ]
And it's not getting better. The NSA isn't alone in prying into our digital details. It's retailers, it's market research companies, it's data miners (duh), and worst of all, on some level, it's us. We benefit from a certain level of privacy invasion, too. At least the NSA can say it's ruining your private life to protect American vitality, keeping us safe from mean men in caves, while we continue to consume huge quantities of apple pie, even if the argument is largely crap.
Me? I'm just looking to suck more of your eyes into reading my pearly words of wisdom every other day. I may not be actively engaged in privacy invasion on a personal level, but this website, like all publishers, tracks user preferences, site visitation habits, whatever interests of yours we can glean, and as much as we can know about your role in the IT industry. Why? Because people paying for digital advertising expect to deeply understand a publication's readership before they plunk down their shekels for an advert deal. We don't attach names to that data and we don't share it (as far as I know), but it's still in the same vein.
And our -- my -- only defense is that hey, everyone is doing it. It's true, and it's getting worse. We know about credit card expenses, phone conversation keyword and context analysis, travel and nationality profiling -- all old news. We seem to welcome new advances in this direction, such as location-aware advertising and information beamed to us via technologies like Apple's iBeacon. That sounds useful, but it also means somewhere, someone or something knows where you are via GPS all the time. Is it me or is that not creepier than finding out about the microworms apparently living in your mouth?
Maybe it is me. Maybe I'm clinging to a definition of privacy that's applicable only to my (older) generation. Maybe privacy isn't disappearing as I feel in my gut, and instead I'm too curmudgeonly to realize that privacy is evolving (or devolving) in a natural process I need to accept as our society adapts to the speeding bull-in-a-china-shop momentum of technology innovation. Maybe I should ignore it and get on about my Sunday.
Then again, maybe not. In fact, hell no!
As I see it we have four possible responses to this privacy-annihilating trend:
1. Go all in
We embrace it wholeheartedly. Chug from the Kool-Aid keg and opt in, all the way. Privacy is dead, we don't miss it, long live the new no-private lifestyle. After all, the NSA, retailers, and the host of other digital bug eyes tracking your every move aren't really tracking you -- at least not as an individual. You're one face in millions. If they want to know what you buy on Amazon.com or like on Facebook on a collective level, so be it. They say they're not attaching our names and we believe them. As far as law enforcement goes, as long as you don't do something illegal (and even then), you probably won't stand out enough for your data to land on the desk of someone who might actually judge you. Don't worry about it. Strap on that Google Glass and hit the mall.
Cringely verdict: I can't get on board with that; it's too passive, too much lemming apathy, and way too creepy. Plus, that "not on an individual level" stuff is a rancid lie.