Can we really choose to have privacy anymore?

Here’s an idea; as we become more network literate, and rely on the internet for so much of our day to day activities we have created an environment where we can no longer choose to have any online privacy. If we have created such an environment what are the potential implications?

Network Literacy is described by Adrian Miles, in his text Network Literacy: The New Path to Knowledge as the ability to “participate as a peer within the emerging knowledge networks that are now the product of the Internet”. Miles states that through network literacy we can gain a “deep” understanding of the networks we engage in.

However, no matter the depth of our understanding of a network, we now live in a digital environment where in practical terms it is impossible to have privacy if we want to function within these aforementioned “knowledge networks”.

The Internet has become Orwellian surveillance state.  Enormous amount of our personal information is collected and collated. Facebook and Google store our digital footprints for target advertising. With the infamous leaks by Edward Snowden, revealing the National Security Agencies PRISM program, it seems that America’s intelligence agencies have almost unbridled access to our most private information. We’re starting to get a picture of a network space defined by ever decreasing privacy and security.

I’ll give you a moment to change all your passwords. Not like that will do much.

Now, a common reaction to this by internet sceptics , general alarmists , and my own father.  Was that it was our own fault for giving out potentially sensitive data and we should have known that somewhere along the line it would have compromised and used by a government agency. The crux of that argument being that we have a choice to give out our personal information, that if we don’t want to be spied on we simply shouldn’t participate in networks that ask for our information.

This idea creates another follow up question. Do we really have any real choice in the using of services that take our personal information and if we don’t should we really be worried?
According to the Hastings Entertainment and Law Journal (p.640) the right of seclusion protects an individual from the unauthorised gathering of their personal information. However, there are plenty of ways that third parties can sneakily gain access to your data without technically breaking the law.

Take Facebook for instance. Mark Zuckerberg’s billion dollar social network is oft pointed to as a prime example of a service that people should simply not engage in if they don’t want their personal information used for targeted adds or increased levels of government surveillance. However, I would argue that for many, especially young people, to not engage in a social network like Facebook would be a new age form of social abandonment. The vast majority of events and social occasions are organised through Facebook. The vast majority of correspondence with friends, is now done through Facebook Messenger.  Maybe that’s the brilliant design behind Facebook, increasingly we need it to be invited to any form of social event and to keep in touch with friends. In fact, according to a study published in the AIS Electronic Library (2007) Facebook users indicated a higher level of trust in the site and a greater willingness to share private information than those of other social networks. We may not like the reality but we increasingly rely on social networks to plan and organise our social lives. So in turn for an orchestrated social life, we pay Facebook with our private information. In turn this allows them to pass on this information to advertisers that are able to target products directly to us and also pass our information to organisations like the NSA.

For instance, at our own University, Melbourne’s RMIT, we are each issued with a Gmail account for all uni based correspondent’s. So in practise we are forced into using a service which has been called a “privatised NSA” by Julian Assange, sells our browsing information to private bidders and has a history of coupling up with intelligence services.

In addition to these breaches of privacy on a surface level I would argue that the structure of the Internet itself causes it to be, by it’s very nature, susceptible to privacy breaches. According to theorist Albert-László Barabási (2002) the Internet is a “scale free network” (p.71) meaning that it is made up of a number of nodes with some nodes having a far greater number of connections than others. Now the problem with this is that when information and internet traffic is centred around a relatively small, in the grand scale of the internet, number of sites then it becomes very easy for hackers or intelligence agencies to get access to our information by attack or coercing these popular nodes. Indeed this is the trend that was shown with the emergence of the PRISM program in which the NSA sought to gain access to the information stored on some of the most popular ‘nodes’ on the Internet like Google or Facebook.

Social networks, mobile phones, Search Engines, the internet itself are all increasingly integrated into our lives, they’re necessities. It’s borderline fanciful to think that would could function without them.

So all that’s left for us to do is to make choices, when we can, and choose to support services that try to protect our privacy while online. Well that’s made a whole lot more difficult when email providers that seek to actively protect their users privacy like Lavabit, which was used by Edward Snowden, were persecuted and effectively forced to shut down by the US government.

Another common response to the whole issue of privacy on the Internet is that nobody could be watching you, why would they? If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to worry about. Well, after being mistakenly added to the US government’s watch list, Hasan Elahi created a site called Tracking Transience which tracks his movement. The interesting thing is that Hasan also is able to watch which organisations watch his site dedicated to his own movements. According to his TedTalk in 2011, Hasan’s site is regularly surveyed by the Department of Homeland Security, NSA, CIA, and Executive Office of the President. So it seems that somebody is watching.

I’m really uneasy with the political implications of our complete lack of privacy. I think the key thing is that many people in my generation have no idea what privacy is anymore. It’s clear that somebody is watching but what’s the issue with the government being able to access your personal information. How often have you heard the actions of the intelligence community justified by the greater good, “if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about”. That type of reasoning is, in my mind, fundamentally short sited and flawed.

In Utah there is a building that’s sole purpose is to hold the information of millions people around the globe. It’s the largest data centre on the planet as it can hold a yottabyte, or 1 trillion terabytes of data.  In my mind this building is both symbolically and practically the crux of the issue. With data centres like this one the US government can store information almost indefinitely. The thing is it’s their forever, stuck eternally, completely out of context, and open to be manipulated by any number of parties.

The key thing is that we have no idea how the information could be used in the future. Here’s some food for thought. If you allowed me to look at your browsing history, how long until I found something that you wouldn’t want the world knowing about? How long until I find something potentially incriminating? According to the Huffington Post and The Centre for Global Research (2013) The NSA has already developed a program that publishes the porn habits of particular individuals to discredit, black mail and ruin reputations. The other major issue with our lack of privacy is that it undermines a very corner stone of our society. In a speech

Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times, in his article entitled “As the Web Grows, It Grows Less Secure”, highlights that;

“We have decided, as a society, to rush headlong into a world ruled by digital devices, continually weighing convenience versus safety. We’re constantly storing more of our important information on more new kinds of hardware run by more complicated software. All of it is increasingly interdependent, which makes the whole ecosystem more vulnerable.”

Interestingly, Manjoo highlights the tech industries constant state of flux as one of the core issues as to why we don’t have strict rules and guidelines to protect us, while operating in a networked space. Manjoo likens this network of chaos to the early days of other essential industries. This idea links in with Adrian’s assertion that an important aspect of network literacy  “is being comfortable with change”.
Manjoo’s line of thought seems to contend that rather than us being comfortable with change. It is a change in how we perceive our interactions on a network that could cause us to be more comfortable. It is Manjoo’s optimistic opinion that as these hacks, and privacy breaches become more common we will in turn begin to value, and push for greater levels of personal data protection. Hence the change in perception that will cause a change in our network consumption.

Sure, I’m willing to concede that if we don’t use technology then we don’t have a problem. But, that’s not really an answer. It’s more of a fantasy land. So in my mind that leaves us with two options. we can let the seemingly inevitable happen and delve head first into a frankly ver scary future. Alternately we can take action.

We need to put consumer pressure on the major Internet based companies to ensure that they become advocates for the rights of the user. According to Edward Snowden the most important, and simplest thing, that companies can do right now to, in a small way, safeguard the privacy of their users is to incorporate encryption to their services. This would make it more difficult, not impossible, for governmental organisations to gain access to our browsing records. In my mind this change on a technical levels doesn’t go far enough. What’s needed is a deeper societal value revaluation where as a collective we need to step back and attempt to understand what our interactions with the Internet really means.

I guess that ties in with the idea of Network Literacy. A degree of Network Literacy id important because to be literate in the network is to understand it on a deeper level, and as Miles puts it “act as a peer”. This would allow us as the consumer to no longer be a slave to the major Internet organisations. It’s time, in our own small ways, to start taking the power back.

Reference List:

Barabási, Albert-László (2002). “The 80/30 Rule”.. Linked: The New Science of Networks. Cambridge (MA): . (extract, PDF)

Manjoo, Farhad (2014). ‘Users’ Stark Reminder: As Web Grows, It Grows Less Secure’. New York Times. available online: <>


Miles, Adrian (2007). “Network Literacy: The New Path to Knowledge.” Screen Education Autumn.45 : 24–30. (pdf)

Dorney, Maureen (1997). “Privacy and the Internet”. Hastings Entertainment and Law journal. pp. 640. available online: <>



Dwyer, Catherine. Hiltz, Roxanne. Passerini, Katia (2007). ‘Trust and Privacy Concern Within Social Networking Sites’. AMCIS 2007 Proceedings. available online: <>  



Hello. Im a journalism and media student at melbourne's RMIT.

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