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In 2014, privacy is dead in an increasingly Orwellian world

Commentary: There is one surveillance camera for every 14 people in Britain. In the US, 68 percent of Americans believe current laws don't protect their online privacy. This is 2014, not 1984, right?
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(Emily Judem/GlobalPost)

NEW YORK — Privacy, as we have known it, is dead the world over. Its demise did not come quickly and was not without forewarning.

Only now are we coming to terms with the weighty consequences of living in an increasingly Orwellian world, where our every move is recorded and our most personal information collected by governments and commercial enterprises, for better and for worse.

Never before in history has so much of our privacy — our musings, preferences, curiosities, dalliances, phobias, foibles, health, habits, our very nature — been compiled, with or without our permission, infringing on our personal freedoms and inciting fear.

Across the globe, governments of all political persuasions are installing millions of surveillance cameras in public places, monitoring phone conversations and web communications of ordinary citizens, and defending such intrusive actions as necessary to combat crime and terrorism.

In Britain, which has one of the most extensive and technologically advanced surveillance systems in the world, the collection and processing of personal information is so pervasive that a report of the House of Lords Constitutional Committee concluded that such activity is “almost taken for granted.” Security experts estimate there is one surveillance camera for every 14 people in Britain and there are few public areas where one is not being filmed.

Meanwhile, Internet companies, advertisers, social networks and data miners are vigorously compiling personal data like browsing histories, online and in-store purchases, prescription medicines and email content, more often from unsuspecting users.

Consider a rather jarring telephone conversation I had the other day with a close friend in Argentina.

Asked if she thought the center-left government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was more corrupt than previous ones, she replied: "I don't discuss these things on the phone anymore nor do I write about them in email or text. Don’t you know they’re monitoring everything we say and this could come back to haunt me?”

Had the voice of my South American friend, who is a diplomat, not been so solemn, I would have thought her response a bad joke, alluding to the rampant wiretapping during Argentina’s Dirty War period three decades ago, when speaking ill of the military dictatorship over the telephone could get one arrested or killed. This is 2014 not 1984, right?

While we don’t know for certain that the Argentine government was monitoring that particular phone call, my friend’s deep trepidation certainly underscores the profound impact of pervasive government surveillance and commercial collection of data on individuals.

Many of these firms have already created dossiers on millions of individuals based on information gleaned from the web and have accurately documented not only the superficial, like the person’s age, favorite soft drink and blood type, but also the most intimate, like sexual inclination, alcohol consumption and past illnesses.

Indeed, surveillance and compilation of our personal data has become so ubiquitous that most of us already assume we’re always being monitored. And if everyone and every action are potentially being observed, one might wonder what there is to fear, especially since so many of us voluntarily post our personal information on social networks with little concern for the consequences.

The advent of the digital age has brought greater freedom of expression and economic opportunities, but it has also ushered in an unprecedented assault on privacy, and when it comes to monitoring and compiling of personal information, it appears certain that neither governments nor commercial enterprises will cease these efforts.

Rampant surveillance and documentation of personal data can have a chilling effect on free expression and lead to self-censorship out of fear of how the information might be used. At the very heart of the debate over privacy is the protection of free expression, the most fundamental of human rights.

China has emerged as one of the foremost countries monitoring its citizens. In recent years, the Chinese Government has installed more than 20 million surveillance cameras nationwide, which critics say are used to intimidate and monitor dissident groups. China has also amassed an army of more than two million agents who monitor the Internet, scrutinizing private communications and censoring information they deem threatening or inappropriate.

Li Tiantian, an outspoken human rights lawyer in Shanghai, recently told National Public Radio that authorities have used her cell phone to eavesdrop on her conversations and that they tried to intimidate her by showing her boyfriend photos of other men she’d dated. Tiantian said that the authorities even tried to show her boyfriend surveillance camera video of her entering hotels with men but that he refused to watch.

A majority of Americans are also concerned about their privacy, according to a Pew Research poll, which found that 68 percent of Americans feel that current laws are not strong enough to protect their privacy online.

The poll found that 86 percent of Americans have taken steps to remove or mask their digital footprints, ranging from clearing cookies to encrypting their email — from avoiding using their names to using virtual networks that mask their IP addresses.

Clearly, rules to protect privacy have not kept up with digital technology, thus the dire need for governments to commit to protecting citizens from misuse of their personal information, collected by social networks and cloud storage firms, and safeguarding who has access to it.

Calvin Sims is a cross-sector leader with more than 20 years of experience in journalism, philanthropy and international affairs. In August 2013, Sims was named President and CEO of International House, the New York non-profit program and residence center with a mission to promote cross cultural understanding and peace and prepare leaders for the global community.

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This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "VOICES." The mission of VOICES is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.
 

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