Watching you watching me watching you

We live in a new, very public age. While most of us didn’t quite grow up with the Internet, it’s been a major part of our lives. To these new generations of kids, a world without the Internet belongs only in the history books. It’s made the world closer and more open in many ways. This comes at a price of course.

Ever since the book “1984” was published, many people have been strongly concerned about their privacy and keeping “Big Brother” from knowing every detail of their lives. “Big Brother” is typically thought of as being the government, but that’s not necessarily true these days. While it’s quite possible that our lives are being monitored more closely by government agencies, “Big Brother” is really closer to you than you think. It could be your friend, your parents, somebody across the world. And is this really a bad thing?

We put out so much personal information these days, often times without really thinking about it. A lot of us seem to have a need to share our lives with the world.

Blog posts about the recent developments in your life or in that of someone close to you. Pictures uploaded to Flickr, complete with timestamps and information showing exactly where the picture was taken. Discussions on a public forum. Presence information on IM accounts showing when you’re at your computer, your mobile phone, how long you’ve been idle, and what your current away state is. Twitter updates saying what you’re doing right now and what you have been doing over the past several days. Complete social relations maps showing who you know and how. Online videos showing you and your family at a gathering. Nearly all of this indexed and easily searched by anybody anywhere in the world at any time.

There’s all kinds of information about us out there, and a lot of people are watching, probably more than you’d suspect. Some guy 500 miles away may know you better than your neighbor does. Now, this is all information we choose to put out there. You’d don’t have to have a blog, or use IM, or put your pictures up somewhere, but you probably do, and your kids most certainly will.

Is this bad? I don’t think most people involved see it as a negative thing, and hopefully most are aware of how much personal information they’re leaking. People usually just consider it as a normal part of being in a wider net community. Posters on LiveJournal or Planet GNOME know they’re not only talking to specific communities but to the world. It brings people from all over closer together. Friendships develop, ideas are born, knowledge is spread. These are all good things. On the flip side, some people you’d rather avoid are going to pay close attention to you. You may never know and you may never be impacted, or you may end up needing a restraining order. It’s all part of being in a community, right?

If we’ve come to accept this, should we really be worrying so much anymore about “Big Brother?” Afterall, aren’t we all playing that part to some degree? Do you think a government is really more of a personal threat to you than some random guy that reads your blog and watches your Flickr gallery, or is it really a higher authority that you should worry about? In the end, is this more of a benefit to people, bringing us all just a bit closer together, or a danger?

Discuss.

9 thoughts on “Watching you watching me watching you

  1. I’m definately more concerned about the government than I am about random people. Random people have limited means. Large corporations are difficult to fight, but also difficult to manage and inherently limited by their ability to co-operate with the local government.

    The government holds most of the cards – they control access to utilities, emergency services, the police and military, and have hooks into finance and communications. They are *at least* capable of being as untrustworthy as a major corporation can be, but with the influence to actually cause serious harm.

    What’s worse is that paranoid individuals can’t always change how things are done… the current federal government in Australia has been in for as long as I’ve been voting, and I’ve voted against them every time. Even if I vote them out, it just means I’ve voted in the other crappy federal party with their own agenda!

  2. I don’t understand how you get to be more concerned about the governement than large corporations.

    Governments are democratically elected every now and then. Their influence is somewhat limited to a single country.

    Large corporations cross national borders.
    They are much better at “communication” than governments are to “propaganda”.
    They can have access, to a certain but surprisingly large extent, to government power through lobbying the local government and/or the United Nations.
    Plus, they are much more focused, and overtly wish for more power, whereas not everybody in a government wishes for more governmental power.

    I guess we’re sliding a bit off topic from the blog post question…

  3. Magic word: “choose”. “Now, this is all information we choose to put out there.”. Thus ends the similarity between spying and the information you voluntarily put up about yourself.

  4. I agree with the other comments.

    We don’t need to worry. Unless some company like Google starts to twitch the idea of “good”, or suddenly we are being forced to make public what are we doing right now.

    Maybe we are heading to a more positive 1984. One in which we can choose what information to make public, but when it’s usually the case that that the more information you share, the better it would be for your own sake.

  5. I would happily relinquish most of my privacy in exchange for absolute global transparency. I wouldn’t mind that the head of state as well as anybody else who cared knew where I was at all times, what I’d purchased, etc. as long as I could access the same information about them with equal ease.

    When Corel introduced videocameras into the workplace years ago, they allowed employees to turn them off whenever they wished but encouraged them to use the devices to facilitate communication. The CEO left his on virtually all the time to set an example. The strategy worked well and employees quickly grew comfortable with the idea of being on camera most off the time.

    Technology is much more likely to be adopted if it is presented as a tool that can improve people’s lives if they choose to use it than if it is thrust upon them. Show me how I can benefit from having everything I do automatically recorded and I’ll sign up enthusiastically; foist pervasive surveillance upon me because you suspect I’m a bad guy and I’ll find ways to circumvent it.

  6. There’s an inherent risk in revealing your personal information publicly; be it photos of your family, your location, schools you went to, your employer…etc. But I believe that the risk is miniscure compare to the benefits. In my case it allows my family on the opposite side of the planet to see movies and photos of my children and communicate with them in ways impossible ten years ago. And to be brutally honest, no one in my family is important enough to be weary of revealing what we look like on the internet or what trips we took last year.

    Of course I may be sorry if someday I decide to run for office and someone digs up an old anti-war rant on my website…

  7. This may sound harsh, but I’d say: get back to reality. _You_ might be using blogs, Flickr, Twitter and whatever else, and so _you_ might see no problem with publishing all your personal information. But remember that very many people do not use all these things, and are not comfortable with publishing their information.
    Not sure how many people are “online” where you live, but IIRC here (in Germany) around 50% of the households have Internet access – or put the other way: around 50% of the households are _not_ on the net, and those people don’t participate in all these things you do. And yet Big Brother is forced on them (in Mainz central station government is experimenting with face recognition; the data collected by the newly-built road charging system (Toll Collect) will be used for identifying cars, despite promises beforehand that this would not happen; databases from all places are in the process of being connected, to allow data-mining by government).

    Btw. “Blog posts about the recent developments in your life or in that of someone close to you. [and so on]”: There’s a subtle assumption that I, the reader, _do_ write blogs, use Flickr and Twitter and all that. In fact it is _you_, chipx86, who uses these things… And I guess with this you are in a very tiny group of people who post themselves on the net. Please don’t forget the other 99.9 % of the people 🙂

  8. Oliver: Thanks for your comments.

    This blog entry was my observations about the people who do use all these things and share very publicly. I didn’t make an assumption that everybody is okay with it, given that I asked what people think about all this.

    This is reality for a lot of people these days. Not everyone, but you can’t deny it’s becoming increasingly common on the net. That doesn’t mean it’s the majority either. However, this is an interesting development in many societies that exists because of the Internet. More people are sharing parts of their lives for the world to see. I’m curious as to whether this has affected those people’s ideas of the concept of big brother and privacy.

    As for how many people are online where I live, I live in the Silicon Valley area in the US, and most people here have Internet access. A lot of my typical readers are people who do these things. This is reality where I live.

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