2013: The year trust died

As we move forward into a new year, fully aware of all the data gathering, surveillance, and big data out there, I have only one simple piece of advice: Watch where you step.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

We first-worlders have a selective way of looking at reality. We carry our expensive iPhones or slick Android devices, we trade up to the new, lighter iPad, we argue over whether the little plastic Keurig cups are bad for the planet, we argue over Windows, Mac, Chrome, Linux, and even whether those pre-post-PC "religions" are relevant anymore.

We also have brand affinities. Apple is innovative. Google isn't evil. Microsoft is. AOL is so 90s. BlackBerry is so dead.

And we also knowingly disclose far more than ever before. We check in on Foursquare. We tweet our thoughts on Twitter. We share everything (especially food, pet, and baby pictures) on Facebook. We tell the world (or at least our "friends") where we're vacationing, and even where we're having dinner.

We no longer (mostly, anyway) host our own email servers. Instead, we've flocked to free email provided by Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook. We've done so, knowing fully that -- at least in Google's case -- all our messages will be monitored, so as to better tailor ads to our interests that might first catch our attention and then capture our cash.

And we trust. We have webcams in our laptops and on both sides of our phones. We carry location-aware devices with us in our pockets or pocketbooks. As we move about the world, we ping WiFi hotspots, cell towers, and GPS networks.

We are collectively generating the big data that companies and agencies crave. We are big data. For we are the data.

And yet, until this year, we felt reasonably safe trusting that the giant Internet companies had our best interests at heart -- or at least were motivated by a level of financial interest we could understand and tolerate in return for the services provided.

The attention economy

Then came Edward Snowden and his so-called "revelations" about the NSA. It wasn't just that the NSA was alleged to have been watching us all that created outrage, it was the claim that our favorite Internet companies were secretly complicit in the surveillance.

Mainstream media and the blogosphere erupted. Our own ZDNet contributors blasted the government, dismissing the potential need to protect against criminals and terrorist and nation-state attackers.

The Guardian, and to a lesser extent, the Washington Post, have treated us to weekly outrages, timed perfectly to drive the attention economy and page views.

We've been living through this slow-torture drip of NSA news for six months now. Even so, the Guardian claims that the paper has only released one percent of the Snowden files.

One percent in six months. Does that mean we can expect NSA drips from the Guardian for the next fifty years? Has that become their new sustainable business model?

Are they serving the public good by withholding the remaining 99 percent? Or are they merely holding it back so they have juicy material to drive traffic for as long as they can keep it up?

I'm not accusing The Guardian of less-than-honorable intentions. Disclosing news is what the press is supposed to do. But I am curious. If they were really holding back to protect the secrets of the NSA and citizens throughout the world, you'd think they certainly wouldn't have wanted to create the disruption they already foisted upon the intelligence community.

Selective memory

Courtesy of Snowden, we (citizens, press, and even governments) have apparently been made re-aware of the underworld of spies, espionage, and surveillance.

We cry out when we discover the police are using surveillance techniques to track our phones and chase criminals, or the FBI is using variants on malware to track down terrorist threats.

It's as if we never knew this sort of thing was going on. It's as if Law & Order hasn't been running on TV for 23 straight years. It's as if we never read a single Tom Clancy novel or saw one of the crappy, if surprisingly successful Mission:Impossible movies.

It's as if we never read a newspaper in the last 50 years, never watched a newscast in the last 30 years, never read a post on a Web site in the last 10 years.

And it's not just the rank-and-file citizens who seem to have selective memory. Members of the press, who should (and I believe secretly do) know better, seem to be taking all these basic spycraft and investigative technique revelations and blowing them up as if they're something completely unheard of.

Even worse, so-called "friendly" nation-states are using this little PR nightmare as an excuse to turn on their allies. I wrote about this a few weeks ago, in "Why do allies spy on each other?" Countries who have been engaged in spying and other intelligence activities for decades are suddenly proclaiming their innocence and pointing figures at the US intelligence community.

Feigned outrage

One of the objections I hear most about government surveillance vs. the constantly intrusive surveillance of our favorite tech companies is that we agreed to be watched by the tech companies, but not by our government.

I disagree. Oh, sure. I signed up for Facebook and I have a Gmail account, and I'm perfectly aware that both companies are going to make good use of the analytics my actions provide.

But when I bought my iPhone, I didn't sign up to have my every movement tracked in Apple stores via iBeacon. Oh, sure, somewhere in their user agreement it might say that I'm going to give Apple my first born child and bake a pie for them every April 1, but if it's there, I sure didn't have time to read all of it -- and I bet most of you didn't either.

As the argument goes, the NSA, the FBI, and all the other law enforcement agencies didn't get our express permission to watch us and make sure we don't hurt each other, so they're bad. On the other hand, because we gave Google and all the rest permission, that's okay.

Well, let me tell you something. I didn't give Google permission to rummage into my past, all the way back to 1982, and publish discussions that I had online as a 21-year old. Back in 1982, there wasn't even the hint of a global database of personal information, and so what we wrote had some expectation of privacy.

But what Google did was buy the entire USENET database and publish it online. Among all that Google published were the 1982 conversations of a 21-year old: me. Sadly, the conversation they posted wasn't something prurient. It wasn't filled with sex, booze, or drugs. Apparently back then, I didn't believe in rock-and-roll or think music would save my mortal soul. Sadly enough, I was discussing an object-oriented processor from Intel called the iAPX 432.

Yes, I was an incredible geek even 30 years ago. Stipulated. But I didn't give Google permission to make that information public.

I also never gave Yahoo or Google or Yandex, or any of the other spiders permission to troll through my Web sites. They do it, and -- of course -- without Google juice, none of us would ever be read. But the point is, they're just there, and they're doing their thing. Permission was not involved.

Next: Don't be evil...

Don't be evil

Back in the 1950s, Americans were -- generally speaking -- far more trusting of their government than Americans were in the 1960s. The Vietnam war and the Nixon resignation caused our government to lose substantial credibility among the citizenry.

In the 1950s, it was fashionable to trust the government. It was politically acceptable to think your local police officer was your friend.

But in the 1960s, a seismic trust-shift took place, and ever since then, the government has been losing the trust of its citizenry. "The Man," in all it's incarnations, from the PoPo to the FBI and CIA have become organizations right-thinking people are expected to distrust.

And then came the Internet, the great equalizer. We could all have a Web page, a blog, a presence, a voice. We could all reach each other instantly. Services were free (and software "wants to be free," if you believe millionaire Steward Brand). It became fashionable to trust again -- but this time it was in Google and in Facebook that we put our trust.

Big Internet companies were simply happy accidents. Google was originally a Web spider built by college students with LEGO blocks and Facebook was originally coded in a Harvard dorm room. Billions of dollars were never part of the plan. Sharing, connecting, and socializing were the order of the day.

Google adopted the slogan, "Don't be evil." Today it seems almost ironic, as Google has run roughshod over the advertising industries, the newspaper industries, and even governs pretty much everything we get to read and know about online.

Facebook is our friend, just at the same time as it builds one of the biggest personal analytics models of the human race ever seen.

Until 2013, it was still fashionable to trust these Internet monoliths.

Then came Edward Snowden's PowerPoint slides, showing that -- perhaps -- companies like Facebook, Google, and others were sharing data with the NSA.

Suddenly, not only couldn't we trust the government, we couldn't trust the companies with whom we've been entrusting all the details of our lives.

Suddenly, it is no longer fashionable to trust the Internet companies, either. Trust is dead. 2013 is the year trust died.

Digital footprints

As we look into the future, it's important to recognize a simple fact: we will leave digital footprints. Those digital footprints will be collected and analyzed, both by nations and by marketers. They will be used to look into our private lives, and they will be used to make our private lives just a little easier.

Footprints are nothing new. Well, to be fair, they're new to us, but they're not new to mankind.

Throughout thousands of years, whenever a person or a beast put one foot in front of another, they'd leave small indentations in the ground. Those indentations could be tracked by observant individuals, and they could be used for the benefit of hunting -- for food or for prisoners.

In the 20th century, we started to forget about the ubiquity of footprints because our roads were paved and our sidewalks were made of concrete. There might be a little stain from dirt, but the indentations and tracks were no longer there. Footprints became rarer and rarer, something more common in a Western movie than in real life.

But now, footprints are back. They're more permanent that the physical kind. After all, courtesy of Google, thirty years later, we know that at 01:42:56 PST on November 25, 1982, I was logged into Ucb-C70 at UC Berkeley.

Everything online logs information. Everything leaves tracks. Data isn't moved, it's duplicated and then, possibly, deleted.

This is the 21st century. We do all our business online. We conduct most of our personal communications online. We conduct a vast amount of shopping online. We meet people online. We work with people online. We even romance people online.

We are as much an online society as the Americans of the 18th century were an agrarian society.

Both societies left footprints. Their footprints were often muddy, their shoes often filled with muck. Our footprints are digital. The muck we rake isn't of the physical variety, but it's no less dirty.

As we move forward into a new year, fully aware of all the data gathering, surveillance, and big data out there, I have only one simple piece of advice: watch where you step.

Editorial standards