In 1984, the narrator mentions screens that enable the government to observe citizens in their own homes. Citizens were not permitted to turn these screens off. For quite a while I’ve seen a correlation between these surveillance screens and internet access, cell phones, and now i-phone technology, the main difference being that we choose to use them. We can turn them off, and we do, but we depend on them nevertheless.

These devices make us “observable” to others, not necessarily or only to the state, but in a way that potentially guides our actions and maybe even the way we think.

We buy things online. Most of those purchases are in principle more traceable than cash purchases and perhaps even more traceable than purchases by check. At any rate, Amazon seems to know what I might be interested when I log on. Our search terms are (or so I hear) somehow remembered by my Google and contribute to what comes up when we search. When I go to weather dot com, the site knows I live in or around Big City. I assume that it would be fairly easy to track down my real identity from the blogs I comment and write on, or at least narrow the identity to my apartment building. Even dumber technologies like my flip phone track my phone calls and messages and my time zone.

And this is mostly beneficial to me. All this connectivity is entertainment, shopping, and a way to express myself and talk with people online I would probably never get a chance to meet in real life. I’m part of online communities where in my own way I have a voice and an opportunity to speak my mind and learn from others. I have and use a Roku, which streams channels from the ‘net. I listen to music on YouTube.

This is all mostly voluntary. I choose to turn on my computer first thing when I get home. The computer remains on until I go to bed, even if I’m not using it.

Still, I can’t shake the thought that I’m patched into a world where I and my choices are observed or at least observable.

I don’t think I’m paranoid. If I were, I wouldn’t use the computer at all. Or I’d use it less often. Or I’d take greater precautions than I do to protect my anonymity. I don’t think government bureaucrats are monitoring my to’ing’s and fro’ing’s on the internet. I am wary of identity theft, but not that wary.

As I see it, I’m taking two gambles. The first is that my life and views are so uninteresting and so non-influential and enough on the mainstream that no one (I hope) sees any special need to track me down. The second gamble is that there are a lot of fish in the pond for identity thieves, and I hope the chances of me getting my identity stolen is lessened by some sort of law of numbers, in addition to sensible precautions I can take myself.

Above, I compared this situation with Orwell’s 1984. It’s not entirely a good comparison. I’m not arguing that being “observable” is totalitarianism. I’m not even arguing that being observable is the same thing as being observed. In some ways, by being more exposed and more “visible” to the online world, I enjoy greater privacy than people did before such things existed. I probably enjoy more privacy on the web in 2015 than I would, say, in a stereotypical small town or closed neighborhood or enclave where everyone knows everyone else’s business.

But there’s also something not quite voluntary about it even though I choose it freely. It makes me uneasy.

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20 Responses to A voluntary surveillance

  1. RTod says:

    I confess, I’ve never quite understood this feeling — which I know puts me in the minority.

    Two of the three stores where we shop track our purchases. For one of these, it’s an opt-in deal — basically, we agree to let them track out purchases in order to get sale prices on things. The other used to be that way, but now everyone gets the sale price whether or not they attach their sale to their “membership.” As best I can tell, the single thing this information is used for is that when I check out, I get coupons from competitors of the brands I use trying to temp me away and try their products instead. I find all of this totally innocuous.

    But even if I thought *other* people were secretly tracking my purchases, I’m not sure I get what that means and why I should worry. My Visa company (or the government!) might, for example, be able to see that I’m buying more tissues, tea, and cough drops, and some analyst might be able to discern from that that someone in my family is feeling under the weather right now, and then… well, what, exactly?

    If I wanted, of course, I could just go to my ATM before I bought anything and pay for everything that isn’t a house or a car with cash. But that’s not very convenient, and it costs more, so I continue to use my debit card even though someone somewhere will be able to tell that I am having chicken sometime soon. And if someone wants to go to the trouble know that I bout a chicken, then I guess I’m OK with that, though for the life of me I can’t imagine why they would care.

  2. Michael Cain says:

    A few months ago, LinkedIn asked me if I knew Will Truman (under his real name). You know how cheap CPU cycles and storage have gotten when it is clear that somewhere, huge amounts of each are used to notice that online contact between Will and I has reached some threshold, and notify LinkedIn that it happened.

  3. fillyjonk says:

    I went to a catalog website (Potpourri, I think it was – one of those gifty places) while logged in on Google and they started sending me unsolicited advertising e-mails.

    Maybe not truly creepy, but annoying. 95% of the e-mail I get is advertising and that bugs me.

    • Brandon Berg says:

      Are you sure you didn’t give them your address? I’ve never heard of Google doing this, and have never received any advertising e-mail on this basis.

      • fillyjonk says:

        I’m fairly sure I did not. It could be, I suppose, that they are owned by another catalog company I have ordered from. But still – to begin sending ads when not asked for is odd and will generally get me to unsubscribe from ALL the companies using that service.

        • KenB says:

          A guy I knew in college had a neat system — whenever he signed up for something (magazines, mail-order merch, etc.), he would use a different middle initial and make a note about what letter he used for which company. Then when the junk mail came, he could see right off who gave out his name and avoid that outfit in the future.

          Not sure if it would work as well in the internet age though.

  4. trumwill says:

    This is in the Linkluster/LF queue, but I’ll go ahead and put it here instead of Linkluster:

    Who should fear the government when corporations are doing the heavy lifting privacy-invasion? By, for instance, taking pictures of your license plates and selling your comings and goings?

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