Saturday, May 15, 2010

Paranoia Strikes Deep

Probably most people are aware of the "Facebook Revolt" by now. And then there's a story that Google, in taking pictures for its "Street View" photos, was actually also collecting information about WiFi signals in the area!

Ironically, the admission comes following outspoken criticism from Germany's Federal Data Protection Commissioner Peter Schaar, who was "horrified" to learn that Google's Street View car cataloged private WiFi network data like Mac (Media Access Control) addresses and SSIDs, in addition to snapping pictures of public streets.

I say it's ironic because a man with whom I used to work, who was a child during pre-World War II Germany, told me what it was like there in those days. "We could get only two radio signals. One was from Paris and the other was from Berlin. It was against the law to listen to the one from Paris, of course. But sometimes people would do it, because the music was better. But there was a truck with an antenna that came around the neighborhoods, and they could tell if you were tuned into the Paris station, so we never listened to that station. Only Berlin."
Of course this "begs the question," what happened if you were listening to the Paris station and they found about it?
"Well, they say that happened to a family up the street," he said. "One day they were just gone. We never saw them again."

I'd been going on a paranoid jag even before these events came to light, having realized that I couldn't continue to write some of the stories I'd been writing without changing the names and places in such a way that would distort the original essence of the tale, for fear of offending those still living or their relatives, some of whom I actually heard from. The cyber-world had become too large, or too small, or both.

Through Facebook, Google search, and other programs and applications it's simple enough to track down people you haven't seen in decades. In many ways this is good, but like all innovations, it can be a two-edged sword.

When I worked for a county in Florida years ago, I had to put up with a private detective sending me phony e-mails in an attempt to "catch" me in a real estate solicitation. I'd innocently left remnants of a web site up that led to the supposition that I was still in business, even though I'd given up my license a couple of years earlier.

Of course I'm now old, and unlikely to be employed by anyone but myself ever again. The young, however, might be will advised to curtail their impulses to put every thought and photograph out there, where the world will be able to look at them for the next 100 years or more. From recent reports it seems the smarter ones are beginning to catch on.

Futurists predicted years ago that there would be a reactive "privacy movement" in this decade, and I hope we are seeing the beginning of it. It's great to be able to contact old friends over the internet, but every new development seems to bring problems along with promise.

The trick is to harness the information age in such a way that it serves us, and does not hasten the coming time when all those who want to take part in any commerce will be tagged with "the mark of the beast," and privacy becomes once cherished but now long-gone right.

Don't think there aren't people out there who would hasten that day. It's much closer than we think.

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