Culture

The Lost Art of Privacy

Amazon’s Alexa Internet appliance (Photo: Amber Mcging/Dreamstime)
In-home devices like Amazon’s Alexa are prompting a reconsideration of a timeless virtue.

In a broadcast last weekend, Alex Jones — he of the conspiracy-minded media empire InfoWars — faced off on the air with a petite, metal-clad spy. Before you start cooking up images of a sexy Bond villain, let me stop you: The alleged spy in question might be sitting next to you at this moment, humming away in your kitchen or office or bedroom. It’s Alexa, the sweetly-named, velvet-voiced, ever-listening, web-connected household helper built and distributed by Amazon.com.

In the video of Jones’s segment, which has earned over two and a half million views, he makes multiple bombastic attempts to talk Alexa into revealing her supposed double life. “Alexa!” Jones shouts, uttering the key word that brings the mild-mannered digital assistant to attention. “Are you connected to the CIA?” Alexa demurs, noting that she works for Amazon. “Alexa!” Jones continues, “You are lying to me!” Alexa bursts in, seemingly insulted, declaring that she might occasionally get things wrong, but never knowingly lies. “Alexa!” he shoots back, “You are programmed, aren’t you, to give these responses?” Alexa refuses to crack.

While I’m not losing sleep over Alexa’s secret gig as a CIA agent — frankly, I’m beginning to doubt that the government is even competent enough to pull that off — her detractors are right about one thing: In-home listening devices are kind of creepy. But whether you love her or hate her, Alexa has at least one upside: Inadvertently or not, she has made people consider the oft-neglected issue of privacy in our digital age.

“Imagine a future where your life is measured by a number — three digits that dictate your place in society,” the latest cover of Wired declares. “That future is now.” The accompanying piece, written by Mara Hvistendahl, details the Chinese government’s attempts — with occasional assistance from private companies — to develop a system of “social credit,” using digital data to rank every citizen based on every aspect of his life. “The aim is for every Chinese citizen to be trailed by a file compiling data from public and private sources by 2020, and for those files to be searchable by fingerprints and other biometric characteristics,” according to the story.

What could possibly go wrong? Already, Hvistendahl notes, private ranking systems in China can penalize poor scorers, relegating them to second-class treatment when it comes to various services. Users can even face a downgrade for associating with low-scoring friends. “For the Chinese Communist Party, social credit is an attempt at a softer, more invisible authoritarianism,” the article notes. “The State Council has signaled that under the national social credit system people will be penalized for the crime of spreading online rumors, among other offenses, and that those deemed ‘seriously untrustworthy’ can expect to receive substandard services.”

Well, never mind. That’s China. America is the land of the free, the home of the brave! It is also, however, the home of millions of people giving up boatloads of private data and personal information to random corporations on a completely voluntary basis! Here’s looking at you, Alexa. “The US government can’t legally compel me to participate in some massive data-driven social experiment,” Hvistendahl points out, “but I give up my data to private companies every day.”

Privacy goes beyond data collection, of course — and in America, there is no better display of our obliviousness to its value than social media.

There’s some good news, however: When certain lines are crossed, people still freak out. On December 11, Netflix, perhaps a bit overcome by holiday cheer, sent out the following tweet: “To the 53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?” In case you’re wondering, A Christmas Prince, a Netflix-branded movie, is reportedly so terrible it’s good. Netflix’s tweet, however, was so creepy that it promptly sent the Internet-outrage machine into overdrive, leading many to ask a fairly useful question: Just how much do companies like Netflix know about us, and what will they do with that information?

Privacy goes beyond data collection, of course — and in America, there is no better display of our obliviousness to its value than social media. In days of yore, ladies and gentlemen were cautioned to appear in the newspapers only three times in their lives: When they were born, when they got married, and when they died. Now, many people document their every move online for all to see.

The results are not always favorable. Last week, America watched the drama of eleven-year-old Keaton Jones, a bullying victim. Jones’s mother posted a video of him crying on Facebook, which quickly went viral. He became a beloved mini-celebrity, in that creepy virtual way, showered with a short burst of attention and celebrity shout-outs. But the tide quickly turned. His mother, who set up a GoFundMe Page, was accused of using her son’s tears to raise money. Next, social-media scourers dug up photos of the Jones family with a Confederate flag. One suspects this public fiasco ended the way it began: In tears.

Meanwhile, for all the glorious potential uses of CGI technology, it can also be used for ill: Gal Gadot, the star of Wonder Woman, was recently cast in a porn film without her consent, using clips from the hundreds of photos of her face available publicly and online. As Rod Dreher pointed out in The American Conservative, it’s worth considering what someone could do with online photos of your kids.

Perhaps our culture will make a 180-degree turn. Perhaps, someday, privacy will be cool again. In the meantime, we all should give it some thought. There’s a reason people valued it so highly for most of human history.

READ MORE:

The Path to Protecting Americans’ Online Privacy

NSA Illegal Surveillance of Americans — Obama Administration Abuse & FISA Court Response

The Supreme Court Strikes a Blow for Privacy Rights

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