A recently published book, The Circle by Dave Eggers, which is excerpted in the New York Times, depicts a dystopian future in which “everything must be known.” Individuals are governed by a society that expects them to make every single part of their lives public on social networks and other online communication platforms. They are to "like" every single interest that they hold and post about every event in their lives.
In all likelihood, this is not the nefarious plan for the future that social networks hold. However, Eggers' book raises the question of internet privacy and social conduct in an age of massive surveillance. Could we be our own worst enemy?
It is inevitable that we will lose a great portion of our civil liberties if we continue acting in the new age of information as we do now. Our willingness to share information and the government's desire to obtain it are equally to blame for the disintegration of internet privacy. We should remember that privacy is not an inherent right, and so it cannot be expected to exist unless we enforce it ourselves.
However, before anyone starts concluding that I'm promoting some sort of totalitarian dystopia, let’s take an objective look at the facts:
An hour’s worth of video is uploaded to Youtube every second. Over 600,000 pieces of content are shared on Facebook, 100,000 tweets are sent on twitter, and 2 million search queries are conducted on Google, every minute. There are more devices connected to the internet than there are people on the earth. Google Maps can provide anyone with satellite views of almost any location on earth, while also allowing “street view” access for most cities in the developed world. This is just a tiny portion of the total activity that goes through the internet and is stored on the cloud. Is this bad? Of course not, it's the progression of technology. However, our willingness to publicize and centralize information amakes it much more susceptible to abuse.
Police forces, surveillance agencies, and other government organizations are within their rights to access this information for investigations and security. AT&T and Verizon handed over caller metadata when the government asked for it. Google did the same with Gmail. Microsoft was obliged to hand over Skype caller info. To replace stop-and-frisk, which was ruled unconstitutional, the New York Police Department has recently implemented a program which monitors activity on social networks. Even schools and teachers have been provided with access to their students’ Facebook profiles.
This is not a new concept. The Fourth Amendment protects an individual’s right to be secure from searches in their home without a warrant. However, once the individual leaves his or her home and property, the right only partially extends to their person. It completely disappears when one voluntarily relinquishes information to another. This has been formulated by courts as the “Third Party Doctrine," and while there are many legal scholars who argue that this doctrine is not valid in our modern interconnected world, the principle will continue to remain at least in some form. That does mean that it doesn’t need reforming. Warrants that are carefully tailored to a location and individual with reasonable suspicion should be required within the confines of a more transparent FISA court. Metadata requests should have to undergo the same process.
The most that can be done is recognize that the content that we post is not only for ourselves and our friends. That does mean that we should give up all technology and live in the woods. It does however suggest that we should maintain online the same rules of conduct that we observe in all our other actions.