The phrase ‘Big Brother’ is likely to conjure-up images of several fame hungry and largely intellectually challenged people, partaking in several demeaning tasks designed to amuse our sadist selves. However, the phrase as it was coined – the unfathomable dictator of Oceania and the associated public surveillance, is an altogether more unsavoury prospect.
While we are lucky enough for our lives not to be marked by telescreens, the recent investigation into Google’s Street View Project highlights just how invasive technology can be, and how much of our assumed private life is actually swaying in the wind as dirty laundry. (Well, maybe not quite swaying, but it’s only a matter of time before Google advances past static images.)
The novelty of pottering about on Google Street View and chuckling at such things as cars covered top to bottom with post-it notes and sneaky seagulls stealing some grub seems to have worn off, as Google manages to escape heavy fines for breaching British data protection laws. It seems unbelievable that Google managed to collect 600GB of unencrypted data across Wi-Fi networks in the first place, before claiming that this slight hiccup in data collection came as a shock to them. Regardless of Google’s intention and/or stupidity regarding this gathering of personal information, the data that was collected was in fact broadcast without encryption. In other words, leave your window open and passers by will catch what you’re saying, be it intentional or not. Of course, Google had no apparent reason for collecting the data anyway, but quite simply: if you don’t want someone to nab your personal details then don’t broadcast them.
The hullabaloo against Google’s data collection seems humorous when so many people undertake voluntary privacy invasion. See the new Facebook Places: ‘Who. What. When. And now Where.’ When I clicked on this little button, I was alarmed at being asked if I would allow Facebook to use my current location. I irritably pressed no. I will not allow Facebook to utilise my phones’ GPS function in order to transmit my position in the world and it is incomprehensible as to why anyone else would. There is no substantial purpose for broadcasting your current location other than blatant self-publication.
Arguably, Places isn’t about sharing your location with the world; it’s about sharing it with your friends. This may be true, but it just seems like a stalking magnet, and in many cases of stalking, the stalker and the victim are known to each other. Not only can people view the wall between you and another person, but with one click they can see your entire Facebook ‘friendship’ from birth – including events, photos and mutual likes. What’s worse – you can’t opt out.
These features not only unlock the door to this terrible activity, it pushes it wide open and lays down a welcome mat. The feature isn’t entirely voluntary either – your friends can check you into a place without your explicit approval. Not cool.
Of course, Google’s error was stupid, and it is brilliant that you can view places with a few clicks and taps from the comfort of your own home. Heck, I’ve even used Street View to see if there was a post box where I suspected there might be one (there was). Gathering personal data, however, is a whole different ball game, and if it wasn’t just unencrypted data then it would be disturbing. We’re progressing towards unnecessary and unnerving territory with regards to internet privacy, but as long as we have the option to encrypt our networks and change our Facebook privacy settings, then this relentless progression is something to be accepted cautiously. It’s when we don’t have these options that it is time to be concerned.