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Everyone knows the old adage ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch.’ That is, if someone offers you something for free, you can be pretty sure there are strings attached.
The Internet seems to have turned this timeworn chestnut on its head — these days there seem to be no end to the free services available to the average netizen of the World Wide Web. From free email like Hotmail to free online photo storage like Flickr to full-blown software suites like Google Docs, everyday things you once had to pay for (snail mail, photo albums, software) now increasingly come at no charge. That’s what you’re meant to think, anyway.
A humorous (and scary for some) bumper sticker is making the rounds in the United States that says ‘You can’t hide your browsing history from God.’ Yet it may not be some omniscient deity one has to worry about. The fact is that all these free services are storing everything you do in huge data banks for marketing and research purposes. In The Cost of Free, an episode of a recent BBC series called The Virtual Revolution, the narrator shows that someone with access to that data could find out things about you you’d never want them to know. In fact, as an experiment, a hacker did just that — using deductive reasoning to trace down a single US woman by the things she searched for via her AOL (America Online) browser, triangulating her identity by the data trails she left behind.
It’s enough to make your skin crawl. Most of us don’t realise it, but everything we have ever searched for has been recorded. And it is not likely to just sit there. At some point in the future, it’s probable that computers far more advanced than the ones we have today will easily be able to mine though decades of data and piece together a picture of our lives, much the same way historians do about famous figures through their letters and correspondence. Only the amount of information we expose about ourselves, just in the ordinary acts of browsing Google or Yahoo, is in order of magnitude, more rich with detail than a few letters, not to mention far less censored.
This all would be bad enough if we weren’t such willing participants in the sabotage of our own secrets. Certainly the most astonishing revolution in our attitudes about privacy has come as a result of the incredible rise of the social networking site Facebook. Lured by the thrill of sharing information with friends, untold millions of people are at this very moment laying themselves bare to the world, so to speak. Yet only recently have the implications of our Facebook behaviour come to light.
One thing people were shocked to find out was that you can never actually delete your data. Sure, you can remove it from your ‘wall’ or your messaging inbox, but it’s still there on Facebook’s servers. Forever. That photo your college pal posted of you drunk and passed out on the floor? Immortalised. Your brief membership in the Miss Piggy fan club? Not as brief as you think. That insulting comment about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg? Let’s just hope he’s the more forgiving type of power-mad CEO. Facebook continues and will continue to use any and all your data for marketing purposes, even stuff you wish you’d never let out of the bag. And it’s unclear just what they consider themselves legally able to do with those factoids of your life.
As many pundits have pointed out, however, we have only ourselves to blame. Fans of reality shows regularly bear witness to the shamelessness people display when confronted with an opportunity to be the centre of attention. Facebook capitalises on this bizarre human compulsion by offering everyone a sounding board, making them feel important, and helping them to connect with people — even people they don’t particularly care for. But appealing to our most base and unflattering drives is what marketers do, and Facebook has merely fulfilled a need that has gone unchanged since cavemen jockeyed to tell stories and gossip around the campfire.
Recently a ‘Quit Facebook Day’ was organised. It was a total flop. A tiny percentage of people cancelled their accounts — many of whom didn’t realise that their data wasn’t going anywhere anyway. For better or for worse, it seems that social networking is here to stay and we will all have to get used to the idea that our lives are no longer wholly our own. Even those who are circumspect about keeping privacy controls locked down and posting only what is necessary can’t keep their friends from tagging them in embarrassing pictures taken late one night down at the pub. And this is true even if they don’t have a Facebook account at all, or even any ‘friends’ — thanks to Facebook, that word has all-but lost its meaning.
Andy Warhol famously said that in the future, everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. The implication of that statement was unclear at the time — it seems that we will be famous for fifteen minutes whether we like it or not.
Religious people have always felt that they had to be on their best behaviour because ‘God sees everything’ — even your browsing history, as the bumper sticker says. Yet perhaps humankind no longer needs religion (or Father Christmas) to feel that worrying sense of being watched and held to account. Technology may be rapidly and irreversibly taking over the responsibility.
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