The battle to maintain our privacy has been lost – it’s time we accept that simple truth. Sir Francis Bacon succinctly captured the equally simple reason why in his statement: “Knowledge is power”. The political and economic power that can be gained from collecting our personal data as to who we are, where we are, what we do, and who we do it with, both as individuals and as societies, provides an irresistible temptation for those able to do so. Whether criminals wanting to make a score, MNC’s seeking profits, or states endeavoring to preserve or increase their domestic and foreign security and stature, for every bit of data created through our private dealings, there is someone out there with an interest in obtaining it. And sooner or later, obtain it they do.
Criminals have been stealing valuables and kidnapping for ransoms since the beginning, and the 21st century is no exception. What is exceptional, however, is their ingenious use of technology and the speed at which they seize upon inevitable weaknesses in both hardware and software in order to exploit our personal data. Stolen credit card details posted on the Dark web, hacked sensitive emails and nude photos sold to the highest bidder, and remotely-highjacked and ransomed computers, are but a few examples of this modern-day cybercrime epidemic. From politicians and celebrities, to average citizens the world over, no one is safe from devious hackers who find holes in security faster than they can be patched and leverage the details of our private lives for their unsavory goals.
Yet, our personal data need not be so brazenly stolen. In fact, far more often do we sign away our secrets through the use of search engines, social networks, and even our smartphones. MNC’s such as Google, Facebook, and Apple, have all made headlines recently, whether due to the sale of our data to third-parties utilizing nebulous user agreements, or software bugs allowing for unauthorized access to our phone’s location services, microphone, and camera. But these scandals, and even the multimillion-dollar fines that have been leveled again some of these corporations in Europe for breaching data privacy regulations, have done little more than only temporarily decrease their combined revenues that amounted to over $450 billion in 2018. Indeed, our private data is big business.
Perhaps the most prolific privacy violators are our own governments and those of rival states vying for security and dominance in an uncertain international system. In 2013, Edward Snowden exposed the vast US intelligence gathering operation, both foreign and domestic, established following 9/11 and spearheaded by the NSA whose self-described goals are “Collect it all, know it all, and exploit it all”. The US is not alone, with also Russia and especially China not only controlling the flow of information to their citizens, but also scrutinizing their online activities. So too do they blatantly steal and leverage the private data of foreign citizens and corporations for their own political and economic benefit in their struggle to increase their global influence. Make no mistake, a Cold War is being fought on this new digital battleground with its spoils being our personal data.
And so, in a digital world where private data is so valuable to so many, it’s unsurprising that any semblance of privacy has faded. Perhaps though, we might take solace in the benefits and conveniences that the sacrificing of our privacy brings. Business transactions are conducted with the press of a button, relationships are easily maintained across vast distances, and we live in relative security though violent criminal and terrorist elements wish us harm, all because personal data is so easily accessible. Our modern comforts are only made possible by the trading of our private data for services. In doing so, we not only increase the quality of those services but also, inevitably, the quality of our lives… let’s get on with them.