Forget the NSA: Orwell's 1984 is alive and well in private industry

Summary:State-sponsored surveillance and repression should not be your concern. Social networks, providers and employers you trust to safeguard your data and livelihood is what worries me most.

Given the very existence of the Googles, Bings, Facebooks, Twitters and Yahoos of the world it's no longer possible to create Ministry of Truth "Memory Holes" that the former Soviet Union, present-day North Korea and other repressive regimes have been known to implement in order to re-write history to their own advantage. And Tricky Dick would have a much tougher time of keeping his Enemies List under wraps today.

If information is to disappear on these vast repositories where everything is out in the open, it will be as a result of content rot, not through willful state intervention.

The social networks and service providers are not just the safeguards for our democracy and keeping facts out in the open, however. It goes both ways.

I think that we will all be forgotten -- in the sense of there being any digital permanence of our online activity -- simply because there is far too much data out there and the cost of storing it multiple times over indefinitely due to the realities of running highly-available, geo-redundant cloud-based applications is exorbitant for what are essentially free services. 

Spindle (Hard Disk Drive) costs may have gone down over the years, and the density of those spindles may have improved considerably, but the datacenters are only getting bigger and bigger and the operational costs of running such large scale services are astronomical.

How many web sites from ten years ago have gone dark or have broken links and content? There are far too many to count. Those are the consequences for a society that has eschewed paper documents and file cabinets in favor of random-access data and magnetic storage. Data rot and survivability is a very real concern.

In that context, personal information has been significantly devaluated compared to what it was worth only ten years ago.

We've been conditioned to alter our views on privacy not through systemic brainwashing methods a la Orwell's Ministry of Love and their "Room 101", but because of the way we act with our computing devices on social networks.

That conditioning has arisen primarily among the generation that has recently entered the workforce -- Generation Y, to be precise.

Much of the activity they engage in online is considered to be disposable or of minimal tangible value, because they have grown up with a peer-influenced desire to share many aspects of their lives electronically.

At 44 years old, I'm a Gen-Xer. I place a very high value on my personal data, particularly things which are important to me, such as business/financial documents and those which have sentimental value, such as my digital photos.

But then there are things with considerably less tangible value, such as “Lifestream” data.

In a hundred years, will people be thinking Tweets, Instagram photos and Vine bursts were works of art and should have merited preservation? Are we going to mourn for their loss as academicians still do for books of ancient knowledge destroyed in the fire of the library of Alexandria? No, because they are considered to be completely disposable. 

They are forgotten just as quickly as they go viral.

And I can assure you, unlike printed media, the record of these things are unlikely to exist in a century hence unless active measures are taken to preserve them.

orwell-facebook
Art: Facebook

Eventually Google, Facebook and other companies will need to purge old data or charge retention fees for customers that want to save that data either for posterity or because it has value by being cloud-accessible, because that is the Cloud business model.

Advertising only pays for so many terabytes.

What about those of us that wish to be forgotten quicker? We certainly as end-users of these services have the ability, today, to delete status updates, picture and video uploads and those sorts of things.

But it's cumbersome to purge them in bulk, particularly ones that go back years. I believe service providers such as Facebook and Google should give us the enabling tools to do that, even though it may not be in their interest to do so.

The social networks and service providers are not just the safeguards for our democracy and keeping facts out in the open, however. It goes both ways.

You should be locking down your profiles as much as you possibly can, and only let in those friends who are within your circle of trust. And on those networks where your activity cannot be concealed from public view, then I suggest you modify your behavior accordingly.

I am much, much more concerned about Google and Facebook and other companies mis-using my personal information, or an accidental PII or a HIPAA breach caused by someone in the private sector than I am of willful inspection of my personal data by government entities. 

Conversely I am concerned about how our online presence and day to day interaction on social networks could potentially influence our ability to be insured, to secure loans, et cetera, due to potential monitoring by the corporations we do business with and are responsible for life-changing decisions that are not under our direct control.

We should also expect and be fully aware that the social networks we participate on are monitored by employers. I personally know not to harass people nor represent myself or my employer in such a fashion that would have a negative impact on my employer, and thus could result in my termination.

Constant vigilance is going to have to be required in terms of always having to keep up our appearances and to be on our best behavior. Big Brother isn't the Government. It's your Human Resources department.

Besides social networks, you should be wary about how you conduct yourself in the workplace when it comes to electronic communications.

In addition to those of us who use company assets such as work-issued laptops, many of us also have smartphones and tablets that are enrolled in messaging and other services connected to our employer's networks, and there are policies that are enforced on them to ensure security compliance and other things if we want to continue to use those networks. 

We should fully expect all communications using those assets and networks to be monitored. There's an entire industry of software companies like SpectorSoft that will be more than happy to help you spy on your corporate citizens, and that industry is growing rapidly.

All of these things that are happening in the private sector, not the activities of the NSA or entities like it, will cause a "cooling effect" on user behavior more than anything else.

I think Pandora’s Box has been opened when it comes to electronic surveillance. Going back is not an option.

Based on what we know is happening at the highest levels government, it's obviously unrealistic to set expectations of personal privacy from entities like the NSA, the CIA and the FBI these days if you truly are a person of interest.

Big Brother isn't the Government. It's your Human Resources department.

So understanding the consequences of our own personal activities and actions online is paramount when we are living in a society where it's futile to try to hide data electronically.

And it's especially futile to try to hide data from those prying eyes who have a keen interest in getting access and have virtually unlimited technological and legal means to do it.

We should also be collectively aware there are consequences for acting stupidly online and that the shield of anonymity for those of us who were cowardly enough to exploit it in the past is not as strong as it used to be.

At the same time, we can't live in fear that every single one of us is going to become a blip on the radar, because that's just feeding Orwellian paranoia.

The lesson to be learned from Nineteen Eighty-Four in 2014 is that our democracies are not at risk of becoming Orwellian, but we should always view the extreme ends of dystopia for what they are, and as models that we should never emulate.

Is 2014 really going to become Nineteen Eighty-Four? Or something else that Orwell himself could never envision? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

See also:

Topics: Government, Security

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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