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Surprising Science

Privacy Battles Promotion on the Facebook of Our Lives

Privacy as we knew it in the days of paper and pens is gone, and it isn’t coming back. Short of withdrawing from our dominant means of communication, i.e., the one you’re using right now, there’s little we can do to keep ourselves to ourselves.

The inaugural fuss over President Obama’s desire to continue using his Blackberry points directly at the problem. Since a breach of the President’s privacy could have world-changing consequences, he was told he had to remain insulated from the incessant electronic banter that he, along with the rest of us, had come to take for granted. He resisted, as most of us would do.

In the President’s case, a high-security compromise was reportedly reached. Most of us don’t need extreme security, though, and it would probably make things too inconvenient for us anyway. For the average netizen, a Pentagon-grade Blackberry is pretty low on the list of priorities.

I’m not concerned here with whether all the openness the internet provides is a good idea. I’m concerned with the facts: social networking sites and protocols are not particularly secure or private, and that’s by design.They are about communication, and more specifically, about sharing. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are successful because they work with, not against, human nature, and human nature is–for most of us–inherently social. We are a group-based species, not recluses.

But what will become of the blogs, tweets, and Facebook updates we post today when the platforms that carry them are replaced, merged or compromised? Facebook and Twitter don’t know and we users certainly don’t know. But one thing we can safely assume is that these traces of our lives won’t be gone. They’ll be out there in some digital form forever.

We unknowingly accept more and more incursions on the privacy we used to value and the pace is accelerating. RFID chips in our passports, videocameras on our streets, cookies on our computers, electronic toll collection units in our cars, purchase-tracking supermarket club cards: one by one our private places and movements are opened permanently to inspection. And while on some level we retain a healthy mistrust of governments and large corporations, we tend to sigh and give up under the pressure. Our private realms have shrunk to the walls of our own homes — and that’s only when our computers are switched off, if they ever are. But where’s the outcry?

In most circumstances, we don’t care. Privacy is outweighed by the instinct to be social for most of us. Witness the millions of citizens signing up for social networking sites where privacy is practically, if not officially, an afterthought. To some extent we’re guilty of not educating ourselves when we jump on the latest technological bandwagon, but we also just don’t care enough to worry about it. The question of whether we should, seems academic—especially as we succumb to increasing surveillance without putting up much of a fight.


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