Privacy in the age of Facebook, Comcast and Trump

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Reading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which focuses on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, feels relevant today when we face a propaganda blitz that could rival any of the communist campaigns of the past. In the novel, Sabina states, “A man who loses his privacy loses everything, a man who gives it up of his own free will is a monster.” A few months ago, both the Senate and the House repealed FCC privacy regulations to protect consumers.

According to an article by Taylor Hatmaker on TechCrunch.com, the former FCC rule “required ISPs to seek consent from their customers in order to share their sensitive private data (it’s worth noting that ISPs can collect it, either way).” Hatmaker cites U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif.,  who states that unlike sites like Google, many consumers don’t have much choice when it comes to internet providers like Comcast.

Why did our government give away our rights to our browsing histories?

Many of us have been willing to trade privacy for cheap apps. When we sign in to Facebook, our profiles are automatically attached to anything we click on. David Auerbach, who writes for The Nation, states that “Every time you go to a site that has a Facebook ‘like’ button or a Twitter ‘tweet’ button or a Google ‘+1′ button,” those companies can and do track you.

We know that Facebook profits from sharing our information; however, when we use sites like Google, we believe advertisers don’t know our names, but is that true? Auerbach quotes law professor Paul Ohm who explains how easy it is to re-identify a person when enough data is amassed and cross-referenced. By combining information such as Zip Code and birth date with other random data, one can re-identify an anonymous source with remarkable accuracy, which “makes all of our secrets fundamentally easier to discover and reveal. Our enemies will find it easier to connect us to facts that they can use to blackmail, harass, defame, frame, or discriminate against us.”

Many say, “So what? I have nothing to hide.”

When the Soviets took over Czechoslovakia, they used blackmail to propagate fear of the government and fellow citizens because they knew that information equals control. We all should have something to hide: we have a public life and a private one. Oppressive regimes seek to extinguish one’s inner life; however, our private thoughts, worries, and fantasies are worth protection.

Of course, another argument –If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear– can be used to intimidate people into compliance. But we must think about what we don’t know. We don’t know who is collecting this data, what it is being used for, who it is being sold to, and who might use it in the future and for what purposes.

We have a president who admires despots like Putin and Duterte and doesn’t believe in free speech unless it’s his own on Twitter. Could the search histories of today be used for blackmail tomorrow? With a warrant, the government can request our histories, but who will have access to it tomorrow? Your employer, your insurer, your neighbor? And what will constitute a crime in the future?

A woman was recently convicted for laughing during Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing. Sessions wants to re-establish utilizing the harshest penalties possible for nonviolent offenses. What will stop him (or his replacement) from reviving the law regarding sedition, which involved prosecuting persons who make statements during times of war that negatively portray the government? When haven’t we been in a time of war since 9/11? Look at the sycophant fest we witnessed when the president had his first full cabinet meeting. This for a leader who is under investigation: it was embarrassing to watch.

Normally, the media serves as our watchdog, but we live in bizarre times when daily scandals make it easy to overlook issues like loss of privacy. With Trump’s recent behavior abroad, he is isolating America in a bubble of alternate facts and pseudo-reality. Do we trust Trump’s government to hand over our private data? We must not become unwitting “monsters,” because as Sabina understood, loss of privacy can lead to self-censorship and silence that undermines a free society.

Patrice Hamilton is a Professor at Tunxis Community College.

 

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