Reading the today’s IHT articles on data mining, NSA data grabbing and cyber threats reminds me of those lucky days when ‘data’ was plural for datum which in my country, the Netherlands, simply means ‘date’.
I was born in 1962 (NSA, please take note) which means that I was well past primary school before personal computers like Apple I (made of wood!) and BBC Acorn became available. Being of a mild geekly disposition and ‘into’ electronics, i.e. transistors, resistors and other components, I read all available magazines and books on how to construct a micro-computer. Not surprisingly, I became an electronics engineer and ended up designing computers myself for a while.
At about the same time, Bill Gates and Paul Allen cobbled MS DOS together but it took a while before an “IBM compatible” , as they were called, made it to my desk, complete with dual floppy drive and a whopping 20 MB hard disk. I was one of the lucky ones! Although ’data’ was properly born by then, it was simply a measure of computer performance and personal status: My hard disk is bigger than yours!
In 1986, after starting a promising career, it was time to retire and I handed in my career chips and swapped them for a ticket to Australia and this is where this blog post really was supposed to start. Travelling through Indonesia my only technology was a Sony Walkman purchased at Sim Lim Towers in Singapore, supplemented by rip-off tapes of Talk Talk and peers bought for a couple of dollars each at a dodgy shop in Ben Coolen Street.
Do you want to know what real information privacy is like?
It is getting lost in Indonesia with no one being able to locate you other than by inevitable luck;
Being a full week’s travel from the nearest ‘public’ phone that will allow you to call out only and that for 90 seconds at the huge cost of 30 dollars (multiply by 4 to get today’s money);
It means that photos you take may never see the light of day if the development center screws up or if they don’t, your friends and family have to wait to see them for a year depending on your itinerary;
It means that the ONLY means of communication is writing flimsy lightweight air mail letters that take at least week to be delivered. To receive letters through mail drop boxes at General Post Offices along your way;
That is what information privacy feels like. But you knew that, right?
Except that we didn’t appreciate this. We had no idea that one day a host of international agencies would be scanning our email, phone records, blog posts, facebook holiday snaps: in real time. By the time I post this, some entity will scan this post for suspicious content. It will take less than a second. A millisecond perhaps.
Yet, I have an illusion of privacy because these NSA-like entities are anonymous. They keep their conclusions to themselves, providing that I am a regular citizen. As long as my neighbour, friends and colleagues don’t know what I write in my emails etc, I feel safe in my virtual private sphere.
But the internet doesn’t forget. Some of my posts on early bulletin boards are still there. And if some are not, I have no illusion that they have been eradicated: they are somewhere out there.
The global computer systems don’t forget and every data you provide is assessed in real time. Does this freak me out? No, not in the slightest. I have accepted that my digital self has a global and near-eternal presence. A reasonable chunk of my digital self will live a thousand years and more. Who needs a gravestone in the information age?
I have accepted that any amateur sleuth can piece an outline of my life together from this blog post alone and with a bit of googling, that PI could find my front door without too much effort. So what? What does it change for me?
When travelling in Asia and Australia I learned that there is something that no photos or letters can convey. The experience of a local smile in Thailand; the scent of a May flower in Vietnam; the cunning cheek of a street urchin in Delhi. I cannot capture this by digital means and therefore it is safe from the spooks. It is safe in the safest place there is: my heart. My heart: my data repository of experience of life. My safe house for dreams, love and sadness.
I’m sitting in a little Swiss café, Le Débarquarère in Nyon, by lake Geneva. The NSA can google that and plot another precise coordinate on my trail. They a can trace a circle of 100 kilometres around that and know where I may be within an hour until they pick me up again at my home office posting this blog entry.
But they won’t see the swans on Lake Geneva. They won’t see the drab wet “pedalos” chained to buoys, awaiting better weather. They won’t see the lush green vines on the “côte” of the lake on my way home. I’d have to blog about the gorgeous chateau’s behind those vineyards for them to ‘see’ them.
My digital self is a thin superficial shell that shows the breadcrumbs I drop along the way. The real me is iffy mind-ware in a vast world of experience. Try and eavesdrop on that; I barely make sense of it myself.
PS: Please note that by reading this blog post, you are eternally connected to my digital trace and if either of us ever does something irregular, we will both light up in the digital brains that rule this world. Just so that you know.
And please behave for my sake.