Secrets are so 20th century now that we have the ability to collect and store billions of pieces of data forever
By David Von Drehle
Privacy is mostly an illusion. A useful illusion, no question about it, one that allows us to live without being paralyzed by self-consciousness. The illusion of privacy gives us room to be fully human, sharing intimacies and risking mistakes. But all the while, the line between private and public space is as porous as tissue paper. The adulterous couple sneaking off to a hotel: Is someone following them? The teenagers skipping school to visit the mall: Will they bump into a woman from Mom’s book club? The solitary motorist thrashing an air guitar at a traffic light: Will the driver in the next lane look over? Like children of a certain age who think closing their eyes will make them invisible, we assume that no one sees or hears our private moments, and we’re right—until someone watches or listens.
This was true long before the National Security Agency began collecting our telephone and Internet records from technology and communications companies, and long before the House of Representatives on July 24 gave a fresh thumbs-up to further NSA collections by a narrow 12-vote margin, 217-205. It was true long before a military judge found Private Bradley Manning guilty of espionage for his role in the WikiLeaks case—but acquitted him on the charge of aiding the enemy—on July 30. The illusive quality of privacy is a recurring theme of literature going back to the Hebrew Bible. Consider beautiful Bathsheba, who strips for a bath in the second Book of Samuel, an ancient text, only to come under the lustful gaze of King David, pacing on his palace rooftop. Or Hamlet, whose private conversation with his mother is overheard by Polonius, hiding behind the drapes. The great filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock was fascinated by secrets that would not stay hidden and made a masterpiece, Rear Window, from the premise that entire lives (and deaths) are on display behind the uncovered windows of anonymous cities, just waiting for a watcher to decrypt them.
But the revelation of the NSA’s vast data-collection programs by a crusading contract worker, Edward Snowden, has made it clear that the rise of technology is shattering even the illusion of privacy. Almost overnight, and with too little reflection, the U.S. and other developed nations have stacked the deck in favor of the watchers. A surveillance society is taking root. Video cameras peer constantly from lamp poles and storefronts. Satellites and drones float hawkeyed through the skies. Smartphones relay a dizzying barrage of information about their owners to sentinel towers dotting cities and punctuating pasture-land. License-plate cameras and fast-pass lanes track the movements of cars, which are themselves keeping a detailed record of their speed and location. Meanwhile, on the information superhighway, every stop by every traveler is noted and stored by Internet service providers like Google, Verizon and Comcast. Retailers scan, remember and analyze each purchase by every consumer. Smart TVs know what we’re watching—soon they will have eyes to watch us watching them—and smart meters know if we’ve turned out the lights.
And the few remaining technical barriers to still more surveillance are falling before the awesome force of 1s and 0s, the binary digital magic that is the fuel of revolutionary change. Until recently, there were hard physical limits on the number of pictures that could be developed, videotapes that could be stored, phone–company records that could be typed or photocopied or packed into boxes—let alone analyzed. Now the very idea of limits is melting away. In 1980 (not that long ago; Barack Obama was in college), IBM introduced its Model 3380 disk drive, the first device capable of storing more than a gigabyte of data. It was roughly the size and weight of a refrigerator and cost an inflation adjusted $100,000. Today a flash drive costing one-thousandth as much can store 50 times the data and fit on a key ring. The amount of data that can be stored is nearly infinite. In a prescient series of blog posts several years ago, Princeton computer-science professor Edward Felten explained that this tremendous growth in storage capacity would inevitably spur intelligence agencies to collect all available data—everything—simply because it’s cheaper and easier than trying to figure out what to take and what to ignore. “If storage is free but analysts’ time is costly, then the cost-minimizing strategy is to record everything and sort it out later,” Felten noted.
That is precisely what has happened. And at the same time, ever more sophisticated computer algorithms make it possible to sift through and analyze larger and larger slices of that data, raising social and ethical dilemmas that cannot be ignored. The future is here. Continue reading..