If you have managed to navigate the widespread fervour to geographically and morally situate Edward Snowden over the past several months, you may have stumbled upon far more pressing discussions about the shape and scope of surveillance and privacy in our digitally-networked world.
Lurking within accounts of international asylum networks and Whistleblower 2.0 (3.0?) think pieces are fundamental questions about the agency of individuals, corporations, and governments in enabling a cementing global security regime rooted in the constant and active monitoring of personal data moving through the internet.
For most citizens, any stated concerns would be largely primal: their internet activity, no matter how private, shameful, or embarrassing, will never be of any concern to the National Security Agency or any other consequential apparatus. Despite their worst fears, they are extremely unlikely to receive a postcard from President Obama asking why they seem to prefer one genre of pornographic content to another.
Instead, individuals have largely opted to articulate their discomfort in libertarian terms, replacing defenses of bedrooms and pockets with those of hard drives and inboxes. But do these types of arguments really capture the concerns of their proponents? Maybe.
The information superhighway is lined with crowded shoulders of personal data.
The explosion of social networks, platform transferability, and avenues for self-publishing over the past decade have contributed to the creation of new, largely publicly-accessible streams of online information about you, your friends, your interests and your activities. Add the dense caches of automated meta-data collected by your browsers, search engines, and advertisers, and even the smallest, previously-isolated shards of activity are now strapped to your broader online identity.
Think back, for instance, to the first time you Googled yourself (we all did it). It was probably in the early 2000s, and the results were likely a passing mention on your high school's alumni list, or perhaps a photo from a sporting event archived on the website of a local newspaper.
But now, even among those who (like me) consider themselves to have relatively restricted online profiles, the results can be quite startling. A search of my name, for instance, returns about 4,500 results, of which 300 actually relate to me. In 2001, these numbers were 10 and 2 respectively.
Discussions of perceived privacy are back in style, advanced most recently by leaked documents defining a presumed but unsettling internet surveillance regimen employed by the United States' National Security Agency. The allegations implicate not only governments and their networks of private contractors, but many of the direct corporate platforms that North Americans synonymize with online experience.
Undoubtedly, much of our apprehension about feeding personal data online stems from a mistrust of what corporations will do with it and, broadly, that fear is rational. But these concerns are not new, and certainly not limited to the internet. Ask a veteran of the direct marketing business how much personal information a company like Ford or Unilever would have collected about your mother or father decades before they bought their first computer. The answer might be humbling.
So before we rehash our collective rage towards Facebook, Google and any other elective service that subsidizes our online interactions, the pervasive reality must be stated: we want our personal information in cyberspace, and we wouldn't lock it up if given the chance.
Consider the following.
You sit at your computer tomorrow morning. You turn it on; something's off.
You open a browser window to find that all of your carefully-curated bookmarks are gone. Odd.
Your email is all funky, too. You log in to get all your incoming mail in its own little window, which vanishes forever into oblivion after you read it. Luckily, you keep detailed notes on a pad of paper that you keep in a safe next to your desk.
You type a message, checking your contact list (a paper list, obviously, which you also keep in the safe) to find the correct address. You end up typing the email twice, as you accidentally closed the window at one point, and the concept of auto-saving drafts seems comically imprudent. Just think how brown the fan would be if Google got a hold of it!
You log into Facebook, now anonymous and quintuple-IP disguised, to find a list of accounts with usernames like X5Tgh6d99LRD, safely devoid of any images, opinions, or any other form of ungodly individual content... If only the service allowed you to interact with other friends and acquaintances!
You look for some news to read over at nytimes.com, but all you find is a couple banner ads selling gold coins and local bus service in Beijing. The lack of targeted advertising, it seems, has driven the site out of business.
Frustrated, you gain access to your usual micro-blogging service, only to find that the text box does not have an associated "Publish" button. Whew; definitely dodged a bullet there! What kind of moron would ever want to express a personal opinion online? Don't they realize that a government or corporation could use it for something sinister?!
The specifics of this scenario may be exaggerated, but the argument merits consideration.
The collection and leveraging of private data (and, largely, meta-data) is perhaps the single defining characteristic of what we consider to be an attractive, familiar internet. Most anything that we do or have done online -- from platforms like ICQ, Friendster, Hotmail, Napster, MySpace, DC++, Skype, Twitter, Evernote, YouTube, and Facebook, to behaviours like reading, banking, torrenting, shopping, and recommending -- has been not only facilitated but outright enabled by the ability of technologies to mine data.
Perhaps our inability to fully reconcile the merits of Snowden's revelations, then, is their capacity to highlight an unsettling subtext of online experience, one in which our inclinations of mistrust and paranoia betray a reluctance to want it any other way.