is dead. The average person just does not realize it yet
Living in America today is, to paraphrase Dickens, "the best of times, and the worst of times". We live in a world full of amazing potential, but the spectre of Big Brother still haunts us, and may yet win this round.
If you avoid contracts and credit cards, privacy and anonymity still exist in a limited context, but that sanctuary is slowly and steadily being eroded by society. In order to participate in the brave new world of technology, one must abandon all pretenses of privacy, and that includes anonymity, one of the cornerstone freedoms.
"Anonymity, a cornerstone?" you may ask, but the entire concept of fair voting and freedom of speech is based upon the ability to stay anonymous to preclude duress of opinion.
In our daily lives, in our workplaces, and of course, on the Web, our lives are an open book to those who want to know. You may ask, "what of nicknames, handles, and passwords? Nobody out there knows who I am." True, your fellow web denizens may not know you, but the webmaster does, your service provider does, and "they" do. Who are "they"? “They” are government, law enforcement, data mining corporations, email mailing lists, online marketers, and anybody skilled and determined enough to find out.
As our society becomes increasingly electronically tied together, more and more individuals and groups have access to information formerly thought private. Bill Gates was probably surprised to see his old emails from years back presented to him as evidence for the prosecution in the Government anti-trust trials. Now there are people who take their spouses to divorce court, and using incriminating chat messages as evidence.
Remember how they caught the guy who wrote the Melissa virus? If a person who makes every attempt to hide his identity can be traced, what chance does the average citizen have? Every bit of data we leave about can be used for or against us. For example, cookies are supposed to help us in our web surfing, but they have turned into a real nuisance. Do you know all of the people you are giving information to?
I do not want you to feel that I am a fearmonger. I love technology (to the lament of my girlfriend.) But I do want to be cautious about the information I make available to others, especially the government. There is a saying "the door is not on a toilet because there is something illegal going on in there, it is there because one does not wish to share the experience." There are some things that we do not wish our neighbor (or any putative thought police) to know.
Today, in order to function in this society, we must expose much of ourselves. Many of the things we do for convenience tie us down in many perceptible and imperceptible ways. Our credit cards, for example, are the greatest danger to our privacy that we use on a daily basis.
We all know in our heads that everything we do can be audited and tracked, but we use credit cards and "debit" cards so often, we forget this in our gut. We only need to look as far as court cases where the purchase records of the accused have been used to see the danger to our personal liberties. This can be extended to any purchase or access technology, since a use record is always being made.
There are people I know who do not use those electronic toll-payment tags, like the E-ZPass used in New York, because they are concerned that their movement can be tracked. I do not believe that they have anything to hide, but the sense of Big Brother watching can be daunting.
Even the most useful technologies have a capacity for abuse. Wearable-computer advocates see a day where you can travel around with a PDA that not only helps you plan and track events and send an receive email, but that would also allow you to have others look over you shoulder virtually and communicate with you in real time. I would rather be flayed alive than be a route salesman with a boss who has the capacity to look over my shoulder, track my actions, and give me nuggets of “wisdom” during the work day.
The real question is what to do about it. The best way to deal with the potential of abuse is to ensure that our privacy is protected. We need to not only preserve the current law on the books, we must ensure that present and future technologies with the potential to generate information with the potential to compromise a person's privacy are also protected from abuse. This is more than a civil liberties issue; it is also a quality-of-life issue. We relax our vigilance at our peril.