"There was of course no way of knowing whether you were
being watched at any given moment. How often, or on
what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any
individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable
that they watched everybody all the time. But at any
rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted
to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became
instinct - in the assumption that every sound you made
was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement
scrutinized." -- "1984," George Orwell
Orwell published the above words in 1949. The book has inspired generations to cherish our freedoms. These words warned us about the assault on our dignity that Big Brother represented and gave notice of what could happen if we surrendered parts of ourselves that should remain private.
A recent eMarketer projection suggested that by 2012, 24% of all online display advertising would utilize some form of behavioral targeting. This would indeed be a sad day for our nation. If predictions prove accurate, the power that Orwell presciently warned of in his seminal "1984" will have moved from the governmental Big Brother to corporate marketers.
While there is ample evidence that the promise of behavioral targeting (BT) far surpasses what it actually can deliver to marketers, the existential morality does not rest on its efficacy. Purveyors of BT begin with the "big lie" that collected data cannot be tied back to individuals. This is not an innocent white lie but the mother of all lies because BT uses it to mask a blatant invasion of privacy.
Do not be fooled. Assurances to the contrary notwithstanding, sophisticated data mining techniques can now trace surfing behavior back to the individual. Here is how the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) weighs in:
"Your Web searches about sensitive medical information might seem secret, known only to you and search engines like Google. But by logging your online activities, these companies are creating a honeypot of personal information, potentially available to any party wielding a subpoena."
The potential for abuse is overwhelming. And don't think for a minute that the government won't have access to this information. Under several post 9-11 laws, the government has the right to subpoena corporate records of all sorts of data. The government has already done this, including:
1) The subpoena and receipt of Amazon.com purchasing records.
2) MSN, Yahoo and AOL received and complied with subpoenas of billions of searches. (Google fought the subpoena and did not comply in the above case, but has reportedly complied with other requests).
3) The NSA has received information on millions of phone customers directly from the carriers. Given the real-world scenario above, I am not sure the government will be in any hurry to make BT illegal. They abandoned the program "Carnivore" because the private sector was collecting data and developing data mining techniques cheaper and faster than the government could for itself. If we expect the government to protect our privacy in the face of such conflicted agendas, we really are in trouble. The sober reality is that BT's ultimate legal footing has little to do with morality. In fact, we can cite many historical laws that were manifestly immoral, yet laws nonetheless. Those upholding slavery immediately come to mind.
Behavioral targeting is an invasive, stalking behavior. If we accept BT in the private sector, we relinquish any moral standing we might reasonably claim against invasive government snooping. Indeed, our acceptance of BT makes us necessarily complicit in its abuse. Think about this. We are marching down the road of government and corporate collusion on many fronts. The recent economic bailout is evidence of this collusion: losses are socialized while profits remain private. The line between corporate data-mining and government intrusions has already been crossed too many times.
When freedoms are taken away, we are compelled to consider what we've lost. But when we give up our freedoms willingly, we've lost our sense of self. Privacy is certainly a moral issue, and any process that enables the capture and/or forced surrender of personal information is fraught with moral implications.
Article IV of the Constitution says in part:
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses,
papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,
shall not be violated…"
The above clearly suggests a moral right not to be violated. Does this extend to violation at the hands of a digital Big Brother? Of course it does. Professor of computer science Wendy Hall sums it up well:
"There are lots of good reasons why companies and government want access to our data but there are huge downsides to that. This debate is about our digital lives. It is about who we are, what we are interested in and what is private to us."
About Jaffer Ali Jaffer Ali is CEO of Vidsense, The Video Snack Network. With more than 100,000 advertiser-friendly video clips licensed from major film and TV studios, the Vidsense Video Snack Network of more than 50,000 safe-for-work websites delivers millions of qualified visitors directly to advertiser websites on a pure Pay-Per-Visitor (PPV) basis.
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