📆 May 6, 2021 | ⏱️ 13 minute read | 🏷️ computing

Mourning the Loss of Privacy

Losing Privacy

I mourn the loss of collective privacy in society year after year. Seeing people passively accept more mass surveillance and less privacy rather than fight back is disheartening. Especially young people. Young people just don’t seem to care. They’ve given up on privacy. It’s an old-fashioned idea for them. I’m obliged to qualify that with “some, not all” young people. Nonetheless I find it very troubling that it’s hard to find young people with sane attitudes towards privacy. This isn’t to exclude the older generations. A good number of older folks have been infected with the “nothing to hide” meme. They’re not immune either. The reason I’m specifically worried about young people is because they define what is normal in society. I’m able to get most older people to agree with me that the loss of privacy is a bad thing. Young people are prone to disinterest in privacy and brushing off mass surveillance as “the way things are now”.

Privacy has lost so much ground compared to how it was before most people had personal computers and smartphones. People I know think losing privacy is a trajectory we cannot turn back from, that it will only get worse over time. I don’t consider whether we can turn back a worthwhile question. We have to try. There’s simply no alternative worth living for. I want to live in a vibrant democracy and the right to personal privacy is a necessary precondition for democracy. Mass surveillance apparatuses are incompatible with a democratic government. Knowledge is power and unlimited knowledge about everyone is… well, you get the picture.

But enough of my preaching. I have to stop somewhere or I’ll go on all day. If you’ve read my blog for long enough, you’ve heard my spiel on privacy before anyway. So let me instead give you some personal anecdotes about my privacy.

Personal Anecdotes

I don’t usually get too personal on this blog, but I feel like sharing my feelings and experiences on this subject.

Neighborhood Surveillance

To start, I live in a civilized country which is a member of the Five Eye intelligence alliance (The United States). I can’t even leave home without potentially appearing on my neighbor’s Ring doorbell camera, and that bothers me. Ring is a proprietary doorbell surveillance camera system controlled by a private monopoly. My neighbor’s camera surveils when I’m home, when I’m gone and what I do when in view of the camera. It may or may not use facial recognition to identify me and other characteristics such as my gait and walking pace to learn things about me. I have no way to know.

Not only that, but it subverts my 4th amendment rights because it’s warrantless surveillance. Some of you constitutional scholars will be quick to point out that the 4th amendment protects only from government surveillance, not corporate surveillance. The problem is even though the video surveillance isn’t explicitly performed by the state, Scamazon gives the state access any time they want. Let’s call it what it is, a loophole for the state to get around the 4th amendment. It’s 24/7 warrantless surveillance I never consented to. All because my neighbor decided that, for some strange reason, doorbells need to have cameras now. Short of asking my neighbor to remove the camera, there’s nothing I can do. And that’s just when I leave home. On its own that’s bad enough, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface.

Interpersonal Surveillance

Nowadays everyone carries personal tracking devices called smartphones. Unless the person I’m with is as privacy-aware as I am (virtually zero probability), they have apps on their phone that are probably listening to our conversation, even though it’s supposed to be private. Even if I’m talking to a privacy-conscious person, anyone else nearby with a smartphone with TikTok, Facecrook or Spotify installed instantly nullifies the privacy we had. I swear, every time I hear a crApple iBad ding with that familiar tone letting me know Siri just sent our conversation over to crApple servers because Siri thought I was addressing her, I just want to take the device and throw it as far as I can. But I can’t.

The same for smartphone cameras. If anyone is using their smartphone near me, they probably have proprietary apps that can’t be trusted with the camera permission. Those apps could use the camera in the background, watching whoever is in view at any time. My privacy in who I associate with is negated because someone is pointing a camera at me which is connected to a device that can’t be trusted not to covertly send footage to private monopolies and, subsequently, the state. When someone sits across from me with their rear-facing smartphone camera pointed at me I just want to say “Hey, excuse me. Can you please not point a camera at me. I really don’t want to be recorded and the proprietary apps on your phone might be doing that”. But I’d probably be looked at like I have 2 heads if I actually said that to anyone. I don’t do that because I don’t believe it would do any good. Since everyone always has their phone with them, in effect I have zero privacy around others. It gets even worse if I visit somebody.

Home Surveillance

If I go to someone’s house or apartment, before I even step through the door, there may be a doorbell camera or other surveillance camera for home security. When I do step inside, there’s a chance that they own a Scamazon Alexa or Goolag Home digital assistant. Even if they personally don’t, if anyone in their same living space does, that nullifies privacy totally. It’s persistent audio surveillance. So even if their phone and everyone else’s phone in their home is secure and doesn’t audio record its surroundings (virtually zero probability), I’m still being listened to continually by Big Brother. Yeah I’m in someone else’s home and they should be free to arrange their home the way they wish, but setting up Internet of Stings devices potentially compromises every conversation nearby. Smart TVs also threaten privacy in the same way. Many of them have remotes that come with built-in microphones that listen all the time for voice commands.

What happened to just being able to go into someone’s home and have a private conversation? It would be nice to be with others without the awareness that Big Brother is listening. I should be able to go spend time with loved ones in privacy without giant corporations and the government knowing every detail of my visit, or at least being able to painlessly find out every detail. What can I do about it? It’s not my home. Besides asking them to unplug those surveillance devices which provide them with convenience, there’s nothing I can do. The only real choice I have is to not go to see them in the first place. What kind of choice is that? But again, it gets worse.

Retail Surveillance

We’re getting into the realm of absurdity and I realize that, but even if I become a hermit, unless I go off living in the woods or something, I have to buy the necessities and anywhere I do that I’m going to have absolutely zero privacy. Sure I can pay cash, not use rewards cards or give out any personal information, but every major retailer still has surveillance cameras whether it’s a clothing store, supermarket or book store. It’s hard to find stores without them. Some retailers even throw it in my face that I’m being recorded by showing a monitor with my picture on it. They have no shame about invading my privacy. They do it brazenly. And I don’t care if they’re a private company. I’m all for running your business how you want, but you shouldn’t be invading the 99% of honest customers’ privacy all the time just because of the 1% of thieves. So what if a thief gets away with stealing once in a while? I understand businesses have to protect their bottom line or risk being outcompeted, but consumers ought to create market pressure against businesses with surveillance cameras everywhere by shopping at places without them and making privacy an issue.

Look, I just want to shop somewhere with reasonable prices without being on camera. Is that really too much to ask? Everywhere I shop I notice the cameras and all I can think is “I don’t want to be recorded right now. I’m just trying to purchase goods, why is all this necessary?”. Even if there were a thief, would the cameras actually stop them? It’s not like people stop stealing just because there are cameras. If they don’t get caught, nobody will check the recording anyway. It all seems so pointless and invasive. I never consented to any of it, but it’s out of my immediate control to do anything.

Workplace Surveillance

Workplace surveillance is another thing that grinds my gears. I can’t really work remotely anywhere because all the remote jobs aren’t free software friendly. I’m also barred from working almost all tech jobs since they’re none free software friendly either. I don’t want to confuse issues, so to make things clear: software freedom and surveillance are separate issues, but they are related. Proprietary software tends to have hidden surveillance features. So avoiding surveillance requires avoiding proprietary software. Doing that means my selection of work I can do is very limited. It’s not impossible, it just makes everything so much harder. I do want work. I just don’t want to be surveilled while I’m working. I don’t care if a human supervisor watches me work. That doesn’t bother me in the slightest. My problem is the automated computerized surveillance by proprietary software that I have no control over.

I hate going to job interviews stipulating that I want a “privacy-respecting job” that doesn’t require me to appear on surveillance cameras 90% of the time I’m there and I’m looked at like a crazy person, or met with suspicion and rejected by employers. Why is it so hard to understand that I just don’t want to be recorded, monitored, surveilled, logged, tracked or added to proprietary corporate databases just to make a living? Seriously.

Education Surveillance

I’ve already discussed surveillance in the education system extensively on this blog in the context of free software. In fact it was the reason this gemlog was started in the first place and the reason I dropped out and quit my job. Go to the very last page of my content to read more about it.

Online Surveillance

Finally, I’ve made it to the section that I do exercise control over: online surveillance. Performing online surveillance of me is very difficult compared to most other people. I’ve insulated myself in free software. I live in the Free World and I use privacy-enhancing software. I’m certain I have more online privacy than 99% of internet users. If I didn’t have this blog, I practically wouldn’t exist online.

The only big source of privacy leakage online for me is when people I know don’t use privacy-respecting software. I can’t control if other people choose to give in to big tech instead of living in the Free World. I can only persuade them to join me in freedom and privacy. If they choose to talk about me using proprietary privacy-disrespecting communications platforms, I can’t stop them. If I cut off everyone who leaks information about me to big tech, I wouldn’t have any relationships. It’s in the category of things out of my immediate control. All I can do is kindly ask others not to mention me outside of the private, Free World. I know it’s going to happen anyway and there’s nothing I can do about it.

In general, I don’t give friends, family or strangers consent to take pictures or videos of me because I don’t trust their devices. Most people’s devices have lots of proprietary software on them. If I do consent, I kindly remind them not to upload it to proprietary social media platforms. This all might sound old-fashioned, but to me it’s very reasonable. I see nothing wrong with asking other people to respect my privacy.

I’m Paranoid?

People often say to me “Nick, you’re paranoid”. They ask why I care so much about privacy, implying I’m doing something I shouldn’t be. These people are the “nothing to hide” people. They are clueless to what is going on around them in terms of mass surveillance and its effects. They don’t understand that society is taking a very dark path and I’m doing my best to resist it while I still can. They just see someone who is extremely paranoid over nothing because they don’t understand how mass surveillance is used to control and influence the world.

On the contrary, pro-surveillance people are some of the most paranoid folks I’ve ever met. Those who think there needs to be surveillance cameras in every isle of the supermarket lest someone steals. Those who think we need a mass surveillance apparatus monitoring everyone at all times because of an extremely minuscule threat brought to attention by a few incidents that happened 20 years ago. An extreme overreaction to a perceived threat. That’s the very definition of paranoia.

I’m not downplaying 9/11 or saying terrorism isn’t an issue, but taking away everyone’s right to privacy just gave the terrorists exactly what they wanted. A better response would have been to mobilize for freedom and privacy since governments always try to justify expanding their power in times of crisis. It usually works by the way because people are scared and in need of reassurance. Terrorism was never that big of a threat and more surveillance wouldn’t prevent it anyway. It’s security theater. Mass surveillance doesn’t prevent terrorism. It just makes it easier for the government to get dirt on protesters, journalists, dissidents and whistleblowers. For that reason, mass surveillance poses more of a threat to democracy than terrorism ever has.

Mourning Privacy

What all this brings me to is a sense of loss and mourning what once was. Older people lived in an age without mass surveillance. I sometimes wish I were born in that era, where people had real privacy. I could’ve walked down the street without being recorded by a doorbell camera. Private conversations with others would not only have been practical, they would’ve been the norm. I could’ve gone to a person’s home and it wouldn’t have been bugged with half a dozen Internet of Stings devices. I could’ve gone to the store without having dozens of cameras tracking my facial expression and the way I walk and who I’m with. I could’ve finished college and gotten my degree and a decent privacy-respecting job since, back then, all jobs were privacy-respecting. I could’ve used the internet before it was monopolized by big tech, before every packet sent over the wire was scooped up and analyzed. I miss it, even though I never lived during that time. I don’t wish for everything to go back to how it was. I just want the privacy back.

Sometimes I think the loss of privacy, the mass surveillance is just a bad dream or some unfunny joke, that I’m going to wake up in my bed one day and have privacy again. But every morning I wake up and I still live in a surveillance state. It would be nice to live in a world with real privacy again. I don’t know if I’ll ever live to see it happen. All I know is I’m going to do my best to nudge the world in the direction of more privacy and less surveillance. I hope you’ll join me in that struggle, before it’s too late.