Opinion: Privacy is Dead: It’s Time We Admit It

“And even inside your mind, do not curse the king, and in your inner bedroom do not curse the rich, for a bird may relay your voice, and a flying thing may retell the matter.” (Ecclesiastes 10:20)

Hacking is all the rage these days — it seems that every week another organization is getting breached and their users’ data is splashed across the Internet. Small businesses, big government agencies, mundane emails, and national security files, are all fair game. After all, the logic goes — they should have known better: they should have secured their files, did better background checks on their employees and contractors, applied encryption, and in some cases simply locked the doors and alarmed the windows. And now, that the cow has left the barn, and the breaches happened, we respond in a typical American fashion — we fine them, we sue them and sometimes we fire them.

However, this simplistic view misses the essential truth of today’s hyper-connected world — our privacy is dead. As a matter of fact, it has died long ago, and we are simply not able to face the truth. In the world where almost everyone is carrying a cell phone that is capable to recording and transmitting video and audio, privacy does not exist. In a country that records the phone calls, and electronic activity of its citizenry in a quixotic quest for national (in)security, privacy cannot exist. In a state that reads the license plates of its taxpayers’ cars as they travel in public, privacy will not exist. And on the Internet, where everything is connected to everything else, privacy never existed.

We are surrounded by an ever increasing number of machines that constantly record everything we do. Ranging from cell phones, personal computers, Internet-connected appliances, to license plate readers on police cars, cameras at intersections, drones and satellites, our every single step is theoretically seen, heard, and possibly recorded by some machine, somewhere. Every time we interact with governments, businesses, or even each other, those interaction generate digital files and tracks. As more and more devices become intelligent, and connected to the Internet, that tidal wave of personal data collection will become a deluge. Within a few years if not already, it is probably safe to say that it would be possible to reconstruct most of our daily activities from our digital footprints on the sand shores of the Internet of things.

The “Inter-net” by its very name and nature, was designed to connect machines, networks, and human beings together in a seamless fashion. Why is it then that we are surprised when our information including medical records, tax returns and polygraphs can easily be pilfered by digital bandits from so-called “secure” places? That is the nature of the beast that we created — everything is connected to everything, and it is getting harder and harder to keep the bad guys out. The hacks and data breaches which are getting more common, and bigger in size and scope, are canaries in the digital coalmines. The only thing that is holding back the deluge is the fact that there aren’t enough trained people available to break in, take and interpret this data. However, as artificial intelligence is constantly being improved, it would only be a matter of time until machines can steal and analyze better than humans.

It is time that we woke up from our dream world, and admitted to ourselves that privacy does not exist. We should be aware that we are constantly being watched by thousands of eyes, and being heard by thousands of ears, and not always knowing of who the watchers really are. We need to start pushing back at both businesses and governments, letting them know that we value our personal privacy and do not appreciate our information, whether mundane or intimate, being collected and shared. We should also start re-evaluating how much personal information we ourselves share with others on a daily basis, and whether all of it is really necessary. And we need to start unplugging ourselves more often and enjoying the company of other humans instead of machines.

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