How Will the Lack of Privacy Affect Your Life?

Your world, Vera, will be very different from mine. And I wonder what it will be like. Sometimes, I’m excited by the possibilities; sometimes, I fear the possibilities. One thing that concerns me the most if the utter lack of privacy you’ll encounter. And the power that puts in the hands of others, particularly, those who are intent on using power only for their own self interests. The glimpses we are already afforded into that world are disturbing.

When I was a kid, we lived in our very own cone of privacy. We came and went without anyone else’s knowledge. No one else knew where we’d been or what we read. They didn’t even know what we’d spent and where (we paid by cash most of the time). We had a clear and distinct sense of privacy, apart from the prying eyes and ears of the world.

But slowly and then more quickly, that world disappeared. Now, there are cameras everywhere. They pepper the interstate highways, our streets, our malls, our schools, our airports — every place imaginable outside our home. And pictorial and face recognition software allows the controllers to monitor and watch us.

Meanwhile, each and every purchase we make is tracked and observed, unless you’re one of the few who are intent on forestalling the inevitable and using cash. But that won’t last long. Cash is doomed. When you grow up, I doubt you’ll carry any bills or coins; there probably won’t be any to carry. When you grow up, someone will know what you spent and for what, down to the very last penny.

And then there is the internet. Each key stroke you make will be tracked, that is, if there is such a thing as a key stroke. I suspect you’ll be using your voice and gestures to interact with computers and will think it was quaint that your grandparents had to press keys on a board. Regardless, whether you use your hands or voice, or perhaps simply your thoughts, others will know.

None of this was even possible when I was your age. But most of it is possible today. And all of it will soon be possible tomorrow.

China is leading the way. Those in power in that country, in order to hold onto their power and privilege, are ushering in an era of unprecedented surveillance. In China, you have no right to privacy, and the power of the state knows no bounds. Whatever it takes to protect the party and status quo is the only principle that is recognized.

I fear it’s folly to think what’s unfolding in China will stay in China. The lure is simply too great. Autocrats and other power-hungry humans throughout the world have too much to gain. And they will use it.

We’re already seeing it here. Our very own government tracks and record many of our phone conversations and communications over the internet. And what they do with it, none of us actually know.

But governments and bureaucrats aren’t and won’t be the only culprits. So long as the capitalism is given free reign, there will be those like Mark Zuckerberg and his contemporaries who run Google and Amazon who will watch and track you, and then monetize that data and information in every possible way. The point being, we’re already being surveilled in ways that were unimaginable in my youth.

Some of us take small steps to preserve what’s ours. I stopped participating in Facebook and LinkedIn. Yet these are small steps of no consequence in the grand scheme of things.

For now at least, there is one realm over which we retain control and privacy, a corner into which no one can see if we safeguard it jealously, and that is our minds. Our thoughts. But for how long. When will technology advance to the point of being able to discern our thoughts?

We’re headed there. We’re already seeing significant early breakthroughs in neurological science. No matter. The fact of the matter is, no one lives in their heads. We must interact with the world. And in the interaction is the opportunity for surveillance.

As with all things, there is the opportunity for both good and bad in these advancements. The potential bad is the opportunity it affords bad people to do bad things. The loss of freedom. Independence. And, perhaps most of all, the profound loss of privacy.

I wonder how those losses will impact your world. Your psyche. Your life. I wonder whether it will spawn new fears and anxieties. Whether it will sap some of the joy out of life. Whether it will fade the brilliant colors of individualism.

The fact of the matter is, I don’t know. But I do know something will be lost. Something precious.

My world — that is, the part of me that was mine and mine alone and not subject to the prying eyes of others — was quite large when I was a kid. My world today is quite small. There is little — indeed, perhaps nothing — about me that is known only by me, and there is much known (or could be known if they bothered to look) by others — people, companies, and governments over which I have no control or, in some cases, even knowledge.

It is what it is. Worry serves no purpose. Rather, reflection and action are called for, in large doses. It will be up to you and your generation to find a way to make it work. To restrain the hands of evildoers. To ensure the opportunities from these new technologies are realized in a way that enhance the lives of everyone.

Is it possible? I like to think so. But no one really knows.

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