Overheard, expressed in all sorts of ways:
I don’t care if the social media companies are watching me—my life just isn’t that interesting. I don’t care if some government someplace is watching me either. I’m not doing anything wrong, so I don’t have anything to hide.
“I don’t have anything to hide” is often the first response when confronted with rampant surveillance in modern life—and, at first glance, it seems appropriate. Most people do live lives that would not interest a broad public. Most of us live largely within the legal bounds of local governments (or think we do).
But with social media and the internet, it’s not that simple.
In most countries, laws only apply after they are passed. The government cannot outlaw eating ice cream on Sunday and then arrest people who were spotted eating ice cream the previous Sunday. Such “retroactive” laws would be considered an abuse of power.
But that rule does not apply to social media or any product that relies on social recommender systems. Social media companies and their users are not bound by any form of law. In the modern world, it can be okay to say you are against gay marriage in 2008 (as Barack Obama did) but donating to a traditional marriage campaign in that same year could cause you to be forced out of your position in 2014 (Brendan Eich).
If modern public opinion is the pitching deck of a ship caught in a stormy sea, social media is its crow’s nest. If what you believe today—or even what you believed yesterday—goes against public opinion today, you are vulnerable to the destruction that only a mob in full storm can cause.
In short, what you think is not worth hiding today might well be worth hiding tomorrow—unless you are willing to have no beliefs at all or shift every time the deck pitches.
There are less dramatic, more subtle arguments to be made against the “nothing to hide” defense, as well. Facebook, for instance, spent US$11.7 billion in the first quarter of 2019; they are on track to spend some $45 billion to operate for the entire year. The company offers its services for free and still turns a profit. So what does Facebook sell to make a profit?
It sells two things. Targeted access to your attention and access to information about you. Facebook certainly does not think your life is uninteresting or unwatchable. Nor does Google, nor any other social media site, or most Internet edge providers (part of the argument over “net neutrality” is whether edge providers who provide you with your connection to the internet should be able to watch what their customers are doing for profit in much the same way the content providers like Google, Facebook, and Twitter already do.
Maybe your life is not so dull after all.
The bottom line is this: if you think you don’t have anything to hide, then you don’t understand how the modern data economy really works, nor the impact of being caught in a riptide of public opinion. While paranoia might not be the best answer to the problem, neither does claiming there is nothing to hide. Stay tuned!
Also by Russ White:
Is the tech industry is destroying the free market? The internet drifts toward monopoly control due, in part, to its structure, not merely to tech moguls’ plans. One potential solution could be the rise of edge computing, which distributes all data as close to the edge as possible.
Why you can’t just ask social media to forget you While we now have a clear picture of the challenges current social media pose to peoples and cultures, what to do is unclear
Is deep virtual reality the next big market disruptor? When media moves from capturing attention by being different toward capturing ever-smaller slices of users’ time, the market is ripe for disruption
Will Facebook’s new focus on “community groups” prevent abuses? When you look a little closer at the proposal, you will see that the answer is no.
Featured image: padlocks/Skórzewiak, Adobe Stock