Privacy as an abnormal condition in America

I’ll get the gloating out of the way first, last week both Edward Snowden and Julian Assange appeared live by video at SXSW here in Austin. Given SXSW is one massive geekfest there was bound to be social media coverage, and some news coverage depending on what either of them said, or which way the wind was blowing in the mainstream media.

Assange on the 55-inch TVHowever, due to the successful Texas Tribune kickstarter campaign, tens of thousands of us were able to watch it simultaneously live via livestream.

I contributed just $250 to that kickstarter, I more than got my moneys worth from just those two livestreams, forget the tour of the Trib offices with Chief Innovation Officer Rodney Gibbs, a private review of the livestream equipment, and iof course all the Governors race coverage that signed up for in the first place.

Typical of the coverage was this Tweet: https://twitter.com/jeremywaite/status/443071488615141378

Snowdown on the laptopApparently, the count was up around 50,000 for Snowdon. I could go on for hours about what both Snowdon and Assange said, or didn’t say, but that wasn’t the point of this blog. Both discussions focused around the individual right to privacy, both explicit and implicit privacy.

Explicit privacy are those things that you have a right to expect will be kept private. These include those personal details, which if revealed, can cause you harm; Your social security number, your bank account details and balances, your medical records and a number of other items. Implicit privacy are those things which, no one really has a right to know, even if they feel they can use that information. This week I’ve realized finally, not only is there no boundary between the two here in America, but for the most part no one has any expectation of real privacy.

This is primarily because here in America corporations have relentlessly abused our privacy, sharing data to the point where, societally, people have no real expectation or understanding of privacy.

I’m sure its my background, maybe my English upbringing and/or family. However, I find it intolerable to get letter after letter from what are borderline scams to re-finance, using variously Presidential decrees, acts and so on. Each and everyone of these has the precise amount of the loan I have. Except I don’t have a loan, so each and everyone of those letters not only has the amount of my Home Equity line of credit, they also have the name of the lender. How did they get this? Disgusted I called my FCU, why had they given this out or sold it? They hadn’t, it was public record at the credit agency they use.

At least from my upbringing, one didn’t boast about the amount of money one did, or didn’t have. When it came up in discussion, you mostly let it go without answering, it was none of their business.

Another example of a violation of implicit privacy is my leased car. I received a call from yet another company using a dressed up, pseudo scam approach to extended the warranty on my 2010 VW CC. Except again, I don’t have a 2010 VW CC, I sold it 13-months ago. That doesn’t make it ok though. The tele-sales person that called me had enough information to make a pass at convincing me this was an official call. Just a few (social engineering) questions about the mileage(the last record the have was…), why I had purchased the car rather than taken a new lease…

The caller actually had very little real information, again no more than could be gained from the credit agency(lease) and some additional information from the VW Leasing or Dealership. However, what they were trying to do was to convince me they were the official leasing, extended maintenance dept. and they were using social engineering. While that may not be illegal, it’s certainly deceptive and immoral.

And there is the problem. When it comes to privacy in the US, for the most part people do not complain because they’ve been subjected to years of relentless commercial exploitation which has both worn them down, and taken away their will to fight back. At the same time, companies have automated their systems to the point where you just can’t talk to a human about privacy, and the relentless push for outsourcing, contractors, sub-contractors has made it incredibly difficult to even find out who knows what, much less stop it.

Assange and Snowdon in their ways have bought these massive government data breaches to our attention. They’ve highlighted how this data collection is going on at a massive scale. Eventually the information will leak to these scam-like commercial companies, you won’t hear about that, because they will just use the information to increasingly financially, socially, and morally to attack you.

A friend posted on facebook recently something to the effect of “which is worse the government or a private company when it comes to collecting data? – The government because they can take away your liberty.” – I would say, private companies are far worse, you have no privacy, liberty, no freedom and increasingly, no choice.

Author: Mark Cathcart

Formerly an Executive Director of Systems Engineering and a Senior Distinguished Engineer at Dell. Prior to that, an IBM Distinguished Engineer working for the Systems Group in NY and Austin. I'm currently "retired until further notice".

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