All the World's a Snoop
Internet ushers in age of transparency, where privacy 'is a bygone notion'
ST. LOUIS — George Orwell got it wrong, of course. His book "1984" forecast the rise of totalitarianism. Instead, democracy flourished. Government and corporate officials still use Newspeak - saying one thing and meaning another. But communications technology makes it much easier to catch someone in a lie. TV, satellite phones, and especially the Internet have shined a bright light on the world, ushering in an age of transparency.
In a transparent world, dissidents organize and publish information more freely. Activists keep a closer eye on corporations. Consumers compare prices all over the globe. And while dictators still seize power in the age of exposure, would-be Hitlers and Stalins find it much harder to hide their misdeeds.
It sounds almost idyllic. But be careful what you wish for.
An earlier age might have investigated an American president's personal misdeeds. The transparent age broadcasts them so widely and quickly that school children from Boston to Berlin can read the original investigative report - in all its graphic detail - within minutes of its release.
The same bright light that shines on dictators, governments, and corporations also shines on us. Our privacy is under attack - not just from government but also from corporations and even ourselves.
It's an irony Orwell would appreciate. We have finally met Big Brother. And he is us.
"We're talking about completely changing the way of analyzing, disseminating, and absorbing information," says George Trubow, director of the Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. "If somebody observes and hears something, he can bring it to the attention of the world instantly. But ... the downside of the transparency is that we are becoming a surveillance society where people are encouraged not only to watch but to report."
Consider today's business world. True, marketers for decades have used data many individuals would rather keep secret: how much they earn, where they shop, what they buy. Now, the Internet and computer technology expands their scope. They can track consumers online. New computer programs sift shop data so finely that a grocer can find out how many shoppers who stop by his bakery section will also pick up vanilla ice cream.
That's not all. Companies are keeping a sharp eye on their workers. The old techniques - recording phone calls and videotaping the factory floor - have a new twist: Internet monitoring. By one estimate, a quarter of American employees are subject to electronic surveillance. For example, many managers allow workers to use e-mail and the Web occasionally for personal reasons. They liken it to gathering around the water cooler to chat. But there's a crucial difference.
Around the water cooler, inappropriate remarks go no farther than a few ears. On the Internet, they're recorded and stored. Although many American companies do not monitor their employees' electronic messages, they don't hesitate to search that traffic, if they suspect wrongdoing. Leak confidential data in an Internet chat group and a senior manager will give you a stern warning. Browse a pornographic Web site at work and you're out of a job.
A survey released in June by Elron Software found that nearly one-third of responding companies had punished employees, including firing them, for inappropriate Web surfing.
That's appropriate, because bringing pornography into the workplace constitutes sexual harassment, argues Megan Barry, director of business ethics at Nortel, a Canadian telecommunications company that has fired an employee for browsing pornographic sites.
But the company has taken Internet monitoring a step further. Any employee - not just senior managers - can check to see the last 25 Web sites that any other employee has visited.
"It's all about transparency," says Ms. Barry. "It's about the employee being able to see the [Web travels of the] manager too, because we're all responsible."
Of course, the technology that encourages us to be our brother's keeper also goads us to be each other's snoop. Technology has put into our hands data that only professionals could access a decade ago. Electronic snooping is not only legal, it's laughably easy for anybody who can hook up to the Internet. Privacy barely survives in a transparent world.
"Right now, it's a bygone notion," says Nate Lenow, a private investigator in Memphis, Tenn., who regularly uses the Internet as a tool of his trade.
But Internet-watchers argue that transparency offers too many benefits to start building new barriers in cyberspace.
For example: Burmese activists have gone online not only to rally support behind their country's leading dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, they've also used the technology to organize worldwide protests and consumer boycotts. Jody Williams, last year's Nobel Peace Prize-winner, used the Internet to rally people around her cause: banning land mines.
The transparent age doesn't challenge governments alone. Corporations are under increasing scrutiny. For example, the Sierra Club has set up a Web site so activists around the US can determine what compounds local manufacturers are releasing into the environment. What might have taken weeks or months to find out from the Environmental Protection Agency today is within a few keystrokes of anyone with Internet access.
Online shoppers are also using the new technology to gain the upper hand with retailers. Before the Internet, consumers wanting to compare prices had to call each establishment for a quote. Today, they can go online to find the prices of, say, a computer all over the world. Several sites run daily auctions of new equipment, where consumers, not retailers, set the price.
One Web site - priceline.com - goes a step further: Consumers decide the price they want to pay for an airline ticket. If an airline accepts, the ticket gets issued.
"The transparency issue is huge," says Kathleen Seiders, a marketing professor at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. "The Internet proved to be a tool that consumers could use against retailers."
Soon, consumers may not even have to do comparison shopping at all. Software companies have created "agents" to seek out the best deals automatically.
Retail companies face a difficult trade-off. If they let the shopping agents into their Web site, they may create an all-out price war. If they block them out, they risk being the price-war's first casualties.
Even champions of the Internet, however, agree there is such a thing as too much transparency, at least for individuals. Today's networked societies need some degree of anonymity and privacy so workers don't operate in a fish bowl; so consumers aren't deluged by marketers and scam artists; so dissidents can express themselves without fear of retribution. In an age of bright light, people require some shade.
"The paradigm shift that we're looking at is openness of information when it's necessary, privacy being the general rule, and the power to make that choice in the hands of the individual," says Craig McLaughlin, chief technology officer at Privada, an Internet privacy company in San Jose, Calif. His company offers one solution: technology that lets police tap a suspect's Internet messages the same way they tap a phone.
Ultimately, governments will have to set the rules. So far, there's little consensus about what to do. Many are willing to work together to crack down on child pornographers in cyberspace. But there's less agreement on curbing transnational Internet gambling or cyberscams. Some governments restrict personal information marketers can gather, but they have yet to protect consumers online.
Even when they do, it's not clear how effective those actions will be. Transparency weakens governments. "Nation-states no longer control exactly what is going on in their borders as they once did," says Elizabeth Rindskopf, a Washington attorney and former general counsel with the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency. The technology improves so quickly, the information flows so fast and thick, governments have trouble keeping up.