Your privacy is a sci-fi fantasy

What if our personal information wasn't digital and the collectors weren't machines?

The assault on personal privacy has ramped up significantly in the past few years. From warrantless GPS tracking to ISP packet inspection, it seems that everyone wants to get in on the booming business of clandestine snooping -- even blatant prying, if you consider reports of employers demanding Facebook passwords prior to making hiring decisions.

What happened? Did the rules change? What is it about digital information that's convinced some people this is OK? Maybe the right to privacy we were told so much about has simply become old-fashioned, a barrier to progress. In search of an answer, I tried a little thought experiment. Follow me, if you will, on a journey to a place in the space-time continuum I call the Land Before the Internet...

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Through the looking glass

One bright sunny morning in the Land Before the Internet, you go on a job interview. You're smart, skilled, motivated, and clearly destined to be an asset to any company that hires you. During the interview process, however, just as the HR manager begins to discuss the benefits package and salary, basically communicating that you have the job, he pauses.

"Oh, and we have a few procedural things to take care of," he says. "We'll need to assign a goon to follow you around with a parabolic microphone to listen to all of your conversations with friends, and we'll have a few more follow your friends and family around to see what they're saying."

He continues: "Also, we'll need full access to your diary, your personal records, and your photo albums. In fact, we'll need the keys to your house, so we can rifle through your stuff to see what you have tucked away in the attic and whatnot. We will also need to do the same to all your friends. I assume that won't be a problem?"

Just across town in the Land Before the Internet, a few officers in the local police station are bored, so they assign a few cruisers to shadow people at random, for an indefinite period of time. They pick names out of the phone book -- selecting citizens who've otherwise raised no cause for suspicion -- and follow them, simply because they can.

The cops meticulously document the citizens' comings and goings, creating a very detailed report on their daily lives, complete with where they go, how long they stay, and when they return to their homes. They note when they go to the doctor, where they pick up their kids, everything. They maintain the tail for months or longer, then keep these reports forever.

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