Modern Leviathans Pt. I: Privacy

One of my sisters-in-law and I were both teacher/librarians, and we used to go to the Ontario Library Association’s Super Conference in Toronto every year for professional development and to attend sessions on best practices. One year Senator Romeo Dallaire was the conference’s keynote speaker. The main auditorium was packed on the morning of his speech, and we all sat rapt as he described just one example of the depravity and horror he and his men repeatedly and helplessly witnessed in Rwanda. All you could hear when he finished were the quiet sobs of the women in the room. He explained that part of the reason he became a senator was to help Canada become a leader in preventing such tragedies from happening in future, to rally its citizens to demand we take on such a role, and to lobby for better treatment of our soldiers’ mental health when they come home from active duty, himself included.

Dallaire then went on to the second half of his speech and a large picture of King Kong was projected on the screen behind him with the familiar Google logo above it. He explained that his other main objective in becoming a senator was to insure that legislators were keeping an eye on technology giants like Google. He particularly wanted to talk to librarians because we have traditionally been the gatekeepers of information and therefore needed to be in the vanguard as new platforms for the amassing and distribution of information unfolded. Google was at that moment digitizing the entire Library of Congress’s collection, and he feared the concentration of that much information in one money-making enterprise could have dire implications for the future.

We have all watched as Dallaire’s concerns have manifested in our own lives. Last week I watched two special editions of Frontline, the PBS news magazine. This was a rare occurrence for me because although Frontline is extremely well done with excellent investigative reporting, it usually deals with American politics and I am simply not following that right now for the sake of my blood-pressure and my sanity. I watched these specials however, as they dealt with two technology giants in which I am very interested – Facebook and Amazon. The warning words of General Dallaire immediately came to mind as these programs unfolded. It was clear that the unchecked growth of these companies had led to large and troubling ancillary problems related to the collection and distribution of information, and the privacy of their clients.

Both Amazon and Facebook, like every other site one uses, require you to accept a Terms of Agreement form before giving you access to their services. I know the vast majority of people, myself included, simply check the box provided without ever ascertaining what we are agreeing to. If we bothered to look closer however, we would see that we are largely signing away our right to privacy in the fine print of these documents.

Yet there is more to the story than that. Facebook has been undergoing review by government agencies for allowing third parties access to individuals’ information without vetting who those agencies are or their purpose in so doing. The most famous examples of these are Cambridge Analytica (a sketchy British company which used Facebook to target undecided voters in the 2016 American election and to subtly sway them towards Donald Trump, ostensibly under the direction of Steve Bannon), and Russian hackers who were revealed to have done the same thing. There have been congressional hearings asking Facebook executives questions prompted by these revelations, such as why weren’t they aware of these nefarious actions while they were occurring, and what safeguards are they going to put in place to prevent such breaches from happening in future. One hopes that legislation related to the issue of privacy on internet platforms will arrive soon, but it is a difficult issue to tackle given the relative newness of these technologies and the ephemeral nature of digital information.

The privacy concerns with Amazon are much more tangible and immediate, coming in the form of devices people are buying from them and setting up seemingly without any consideration for how they may be putting their privacy at risk in so doing. I am referring to Alexa, Ring, and indoor security cameras.

Let’s start with Alexa, the voice activated computer ever ready to answer your questions, play the music of your choice or dim the lights. (Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant are similar products.) Alexa is voice activated and therefore needs to always be listening in order to do its job. Amazon claims that Alexa only becomes active when you say its name, and yet when the reporter on Frontline asked an Amazon executive if he ever turned Alexa off, he replied,

“Sure – whenever I want privacy.”

So what does it tell you if an employee of the company blithely admits this on camera? It suggests to me that Amazon smugly knows the average person is either ignorant (willfully or otherwise) that their privacy is a risk, or content that third parties are able to listen in on their personal conversations for the sake of having small tasks performed without ever having to leave the comfort of their chairs. Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, has once again correctly taken the pulse of a lazy, convenience-crazed culture and made millions of dollars in the process.

Ring is Amazon’s home security system which involves all sorts of audio and video equipment being installed on the outside of your house to keep track of nasty strangers, and while their indoor security system doesn’t have a catchy name, it is exactly like setting up Ring inside your house to keep track, I assume, of nasty teenagers. The problem with the information amassed by these technologies is that it exists in the cloud, meaning it’s available to anyone who knows how to retrieve it. There was footage on Frontline of Alexa speaking to people who were home alone, because, of course, hackers have complete access to your entire house if it is equipped with all of these Amazon products. (One teenage girl nearly jumps out of her skin when a strange voice seemingly comes out of thin air and compliments the red shirt she is wearing. Can you imagine?!) It is ironic in the extreme that people install these systems in the hopes of keeping their families and possessions safe, but are actually putting them more at risk by making them remotely visible and audible to complete strangers.

Anyone who has read or seen “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco is aware that before the printing press, abbeys owned the only libraries in existence and the monks jealously guarded the books and information therein. If things continue as they are, with governments providing very little oversight and enacting virtually no laws with regards to technology giants like Facebook and Amazon, as well as Microsoft, Apple and Google, then these companies could easily turn into the modern-day equivalents of those medieval friars – deciding who has access to which information and for what price, including details you consider personal. Freedom of information and the right to privacy are the cornerstones of a vibrant democracy, and these are the very things at risk. Perhaps it’s time for people to peel their eyes away from their cell phones and take a good hard look at the writing on the wall.

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