WEB OF SECRETS

Posted in Rants on May 15th, 2017 by Ed

The curious lack of enthusiasm for getting to the bottom of the ties between the current administration and Russia is about more than partisan politics and Americans' general lack of interest in anything substantive. The whole story makes people uneasy because it speaks to a fundamental change in the world that has unsettling consequences for all of us. Privacy is essentially dead, and we don't want to learn just how dead it is. The implications are too frightening.

We get stories about email hacks, computer viruses, information theft, and other forms of electronic snooping to understand – whether we realize it or not – that the concept of privacy on the internet does not truly exist. Anyone willing to devote the time, effort, and resources to getting at our personal information can do so. The only reason it doesn't happen to you and I is that you and I are not important. If we were, hell or high water couldn't stop an interested party from reading your emails, flipping through your text messages, and so on.

Given the extent to which we have transitioned huge parts of our lives onto the internet, this is not a reality we are eager to confront. Not many of us have an internet footprint that would involve issues of national security, but I think it makes people profoundly uncomfortable to see these stories on the news and realize that under the right circumstances, everything we have ever said or done online could suddenly become available for the world to read. If you don't believe that, pause for a moment and imagine that everyone you know could read everything you've ever said (some of it about them, no doubt) in a text, email, IM, and so on. The best case scenario would be some serious embarrassment. The worst is documentation of activities that could land you in legal trouble, given that those text messages to your weed dealer probably aren't nearly as inscrutable as you suppose them to be.

The technology and talent for invading someone's privacy online will only get better in the future. The fact that your credit card number, identity, bank account, and email haven't been hacked is not an indication that online security measures are protecting you, but that you're not important enough for the people who have these skills to use them against you. As the ability to pry improves, electronic blackmail is likely to become the unstoppable billion dollar illegal activity of the future. "Pay up or else everything goes on Wikileaks" is a demand that many people in the professional world are likely to have a hard time ignoring. If you're in a field in which it matters in the least how other people see you (i.e., nearly every profession) you aren't going to be pleased by the thought of the world finding out that you forward off-color jokes, have a deep and lasting fondness for illegal drugs, consume a truly heroic amount of porn, write long harangues against your immediate superiors at work, like taking pictures of yourself in various states of undress, have a thriving account on Furry Fetish Personals, or any of the hundreds of other things people do in their private lives under the assumption that the phrase "private lives" is meaningful. We aren't quite ready to admit to ourselves that if the wrong people take an interest in you, the idea of privacy effectively ceases to exist.

On an intellectual level the majority of Americans believe it's important to know fully what sort of connections elected officials might have to a foreign government or any other potentially questionable interests. When we pause to consider how that information has become available to the public and to law enforcement, though, we are divided into two groups: those of us made uncomfortable by the extent to which electronic spies can pry into our lives and those of us who don't understand the issue well enough to realize the implications.