When did it become the status quo for user's data to be mined without question?
Google has admitted what many of us felt we knew anyway, namely, that it would be unreasonable to expect privacy when using their email software. Gmail has 425 million users worldwide, including me, and while I was never arrogant enough to assume that the company took any interest in the daily back and forth with my boyfriend concerning what’s for dinner (“not fish please, I had fish yesterday, for lunch”), I always assumed there must be some kind of machine scanning my inbox. How else could I have remained free from penis enlargement advertisements for so long?
As Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, has said before: “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” I would extend this assertion to most of the internet (although, of course, there are corners of this world wide web where the creepy line is but a minuscule speck in the rearview mirror).
Do we assume that anything we do online is confidential? Clearly the pleasingly named Mr Lube of Toronto, Canada, forgot that people were listening when he tweeted that he “needed a spliff or two” and was promptly retweeted by the police, but he is perhaps a rare case. Having grown up online, I never really believed that any of it was private. Even when, aged 13, I was contributing awful poetry about boys at school to my anonymous teen open diary, I lived in constant fear that some fellow pupil would discover it, print it out, and distribute it like flyers in the sports hall. But then, I was a paranoid child, always trying to detect the presence of phone tappers by yelling out what I presumed to be “key words” for CIA intervention (“Roswell!”, “White House!”, “Bolshevik!”)
Of course, having no “reasonable expectation” that our communications should be confidential doesn’t mean that we can’t also wish that they actually were. It’s about how the information is used just as much as it’s about how it is monitored. As we saw this week when the British Library’s internet filters blocked Shakespeare’s Hamlet as “violent content”, this technology is not infallible. Perhaps there are hundreds of thoughtfully penned erotic emails from lovers past and present intended for my eyes only, languishing somewhere in cyberspace alongside Viagra testimonials. The thought saddens me.
Furthermore, when David Cameron’s Pornmaggeddon is implemented at the end of this year, seemingly arbitrarily (I thought there would be a consultation period, or a white paper, or something, but apparently he can just command ISPs to do his bidding), there will be lots of people who have opted in, myself included, who will be wondering just how that information may be used in the future. Will I be put on some kind of list? What if my partner and I want to adopt a child someday?
Perhaps it’s best to turn one’s back on the internet altogether. A study published this week found that the public nature of Facebook makes you miserable and lonely anyway. Those in need of sexual stimulation could just print out James Joyce’s letters to Nora, and anything truly confidential could be baked into a pizza topping. As for what’s for dinner, I suppose he’ll just have to eat whatever turns up.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010