This Scandal Just Went Hollywood

We don’t want privacy – we want a good story.

Edward SnowdenI’m not sure what to make of the revelation that the National Security Agency has been spying on Americans for years, secretly monitoring our phone calls and internet activity in ways that certainly push the boundaries of what is legal and just.

I had already assumed that the NSA (and who knows what other agency) was violating our privacy. So the leak provided by Edward Snowden merely confirmed reasonable suspicions that I and many Americans have held since…well always, but certainly since September 11, 2001.

The public tumult following the NSA leaks is different than the controversies surrounding Obama’s other scandals. Ben Gazi seems like a case of incompetence being stretched to one of treachery. The IRS targeting conservative organizations was inappropriate but a drop in the bucket compared to the number of right-leaning organizations that received little scrutiny. The Justice Department seizing phone records of the Associated Press is a dispute in policy rather than a scandal – if the actions seem despicable, blame the law that allows the Government to take such actions.

Although none of the three scandals mentioned above should be excused, upon closer inspection, they fail to get my blood boiling. It feels like the Government acting dumb – just as it always has. This week could have featured another tired news cycle of a Government agency overstepping its boundaries in a flood of partisan talking points had it not been for one key element that changed everything – Edward Snowden.

One man. A face. That’s all it takes to turn this whole mess into a story of good versus evil. We knew all along that the Government was the bad guy, but what we were missing until now, was a hero, and we have found him. Is he a hero? I have no clue, and most folks won’t care because we want the narrative more than the substance of character or policy. For goodness sake, his name sounds like that of a character from Game of Thrones – the next Lord of Winterfell, Ed(w)ard Snowden!

We don’t want our privacy – we want an individual (preferably a white male so as to fit the Hollywood narrative) to stand up to the system and fight. If we really wanted our privacy, we wouldn’t be signing it away every single day to Facebook, Google and all types of companies collecting our personal data. Edward Snowden represents the answer to all our collective longings. He’s a nerd who took a stand. He has libertarian tendencies (donated to Ron Paul’s presidential campaign) which gives him automatic anti-establishment cred. He’s tough (enlisted in the Army in 2003 to join the Special Forces) and not ugly, which is not insignificant. And of course, his main concern now is the pain he may be causing for his family, many of whom work for the US Government. I expect that the screenplays are already being written.

The place he chose to go makes the story only more interesting. Hong Kong is, for all intents and purposes, a democratic system within a larger authoritarian one. The semi-state already has an extradition treaty with the US, but none of that matters if China, which has the final say on all foreign relations with Hong Kong, decides to step in. Snowden’s decision to flee east sets up a potential clash of superpowers that would never have been possible had he fled to anywhere else in the world.

Had the same news about the NSA’s PRISM project came from a boring committee of journalists at a big newspaper, I guarantee that the story would not have made as big a splash as it did. We are much more concerned with the fate of this troublemaker than the laws and policies he hopes to change.

The Smartest/Creepiest Car Insurance Idea (For Now)

It even looks like R2D2
The man is watching. But don’t worry, he wants to save you money.

We all hate insurance companies – about as much as we hate banks, airlines and cell phone service providers. Car insurance companies, however, have a new way to save you money, but it takes us one step closer to 1984.

Progressive offers its customers a device called Snapshot that monitors the number of miles driven, and how fast the car is driven. The reason is simple – people who drive more, and people who drive faster are involved in more accidents. These folks are the reason that everyone else’s insurance premiums are higher than they would otherwise be.

Insurance companies already gather mountains of information on our age, gender, geography, marital status, income and credit score (and probably a lot of things we aren’t aware of) in order to determine who is a greater risk and thereby deserving of a higher premium. But these call into questions issues of sexism, ageism and classism. Charging more to those who drive more makes a lot more sense morally and financially.

Check out this graph from The Atlantic showing the relationship between miles driven and crashes/damages/injuries.

It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

And sure, Progressive, and its competitors who offer similar but less advanced products, have intentionally left out a GPS tracking systems in the monitoring device. They rightly assumed customers would not use the product with Big Brother knowing so much. But it’s only a matter of time before we cross that line. Once the system is in place, it will only be a matter of adding (or merely activating) one feature.

Surely there are lives and money to be saved if companies could track our every motion. Certainly there are some roads that are more dangerous than others; people who drive on the safe ones who want to save. How about breathalyzers as standard equipment in order to save money on insurance?

What other information can we use to draw correlations? Level of education? Criminal record? Gun ownership? Body mass index? Religion? Race? That last one is prohibited under the Constitution, but when you make a list of all the factors, you see how ridiculous it might seem to (1) exclude it, or (2) even consider all the other bits of information in the first place.

As technology improves we are going to be confronted with more of these dilemmas over privacy and common sense approaches to saving money and lives. I’m not sure where to draw the line. In fact, I would install such a device in my car. The way I see it, the war with the machines/robots/cyborgs/mutants/whatever is coming one way or another. The only question is whether it will be my grandchildren or their grandchildren who will wage that battle.

Facebook Is Defending Our Privacy (and Their Bottom Line)

Employers want your Facebook password, but Mark and Co. are here to help. Nice, but there is still no hope.

No intro for this post – we already know that Facebook is taking over our lives.

What’s more disturbing, however, is the recent trend of employers asking candidates for Facebook passwords in job interviews. Most companies already search your name in Google and Facebook to glean any public information, but requiring the disclosure of your password is tantamount to handing over a copy of your house keys in case your boss ever feels like dropping by to make sure you aren’t misbehaving. Apparently Facebook has noticed and has made it known that they are not happy.

Last Friday, Facebook issued a statement, condemning the soliciting of passwords. And then they took it to another level.

Facebook takes your privacy seriously.  We’ll take action to protect the privacy and security of our users, whether by engaging policymakers or, where appropriate, by initiating legal action, including by shutting down applications that abuse their privileges.

Did you catch that? Initiating legal action! The prospects of a legal battle with Facebook makes the ACLU (who is working on the matter too) seem like a minor nuisance. Hopefully, this will discourage employers from overstepping their boundaries (now if only we could get Facebook to do so as well).

So why is Facebook so concerned with our privacy? By partnering with users to maintain strict boundaries around personal information, Facebook is ensuring that they, and only they, can have access to (and profit from) your personal information. This is the basis of their entire business model. Also, if employers had access to accounts, people would be less likely to use the site as freely as they do now. Fewer users and reduced volume translates to less information to sell.

Although Facebook has taken a stand against intrusive employers, in the long run, we may be defenseless against entities that know us better than we know ourselves. There are plenty of other companies and government authorities who are actively working to track our behavior in order to facilitate material consumption and political coercion. The irony is that we are voluntarily giving up our privacy. Complaints about corporate intrusiveness are superseded by our frantic appetite to consume more of their products. We may be safe from our employers for now, but if we are headed toward a dystopian future of conformity and control, perhaps it will be our own fault for signing up. For a more full explanation, see this important video.