Thursday, May 22, 2008Perhaps the most surprising thing about this news story from the UK is how unsurprising it seems today, in 2008:
A government database holding details of every phone call made, email sent and minute spent on the internet by the public could be created as part of a centralised fight against crime and terrorism, it emerged [May 20th]. News of the proposal prompted alarm about the country's growing surveillance culture and raised fears of "data profiling" of citizens. It follows on from plans for databases for ID cards and NHS electronic patient records.Which brings me to my main point. I've noticed an unsettling trend in the comment sections of blogs and websites reporting on intrusive government proposals like the one above.
Telecoms companies and internet service providers would be compelled to hand over their records to the Home Office under proposals that could find their way into the new data communications bill. The information would be stored for at least 12 months and police, security services and other agencies across Europe would be able to access the database with court permission. [Read full article in Guardian UK, and others, via Schneier on Security]
I see fewer expressions of outrage at the idea that our private communications could be intercepted, monitored, shared and stored by government agencies - and more "what, are you paranoid?" joking, more "what's the big deal, everyone's doing it, get used to it" dismissals. Why should this be the case? Do we actually value our electronic privacy less today than we once did?
What I suspect is happening is a gradual downward shift of privacy expectations in this less-than-a-decade since 9/11, and public acclimation to pervasive surveillance. Being watched is no longer the exception: it's the norm.
Corporations routinely buy and sell our private personal and financial information amongst themselves, public spaces and private establishments surveil and record activity as a matter of course. Any time we enter a store, a bank, a sports arena, or an airport we expect to have our actions and movements electronically observed and recorded. When we dial a customer service number, the canned preamble more often than not warns us "this call may be recorded."
A friend whom I normally held to be an advocate of individual privacy rights recently offered the apologist's trope, that those who are guilty of nothing have nothing to fear by being watched. I found this surprising and a bit disturbing - after all, if our calls and emails are recorded, then yesterday's innocent act could become tomorrow's documented transgression. It also occurred to me that these days even I rarely notice the increasing number of dark, shiny watchful hemispheres on the ceilings and walls of nearly every store and public place I go. They're just there, like light bulbs and fire sprinklers.
Outside of our homes, we have virtually no expectation of privacy of action to speak of, but this broad proposal is different: it hits us where we communicate, emote, express, think. It's not just surveillance of behavior; it's the closest thing we have today to surveillance of thought.
You know, I think those commenters are right. We're starting to care less and less that we're being watched because we're all being watched.