The satirical news outlet National Report recently ran a story on computer behemoth Apple sharing user fingerprint data with the dastardly National Security Agency. It seems one of the hot, new features of the latest iPhone is the ability to recognize imprints. The non-scandal was picked up on a number of websites, only to be debunked by Charles Arthur in The Guardian. Admittedly, this writer was fooled by the hoax. With the publication of origin running stories on elders rioting over meds and the efficacy of violently exterminating illegal aliens, I should have been more vigilant.
The thing is, as blood-boiling as the story was, it was also believable. Thanks to the intrepid work of journalist Glenn Greenwald and heroic individualism of Edward Snowden, the public is now aware of Apple’s cozy relationship with Washington. According to a report in The Guardian, the NSA’s Prism program has direct access to the servers of major internet companies – including everyone’s favorite fruit-inspired computer provider. Government bureaucrats currently have an unhampered means of gathering data on individual users.
Despite claiming to have never heard of the program, Apple joined the surveillance panopticon in 2012. Whether by choice or by force is still a question; but it’s hard to argue with an armed gang. If I had to hedge my bets, I would go with the Jobs’ giant making a Faustian bargain in return for profits. As socially optimal as earnings are, throwing customers to the mob doesn’t sit easy. I don’t endorse the practice, but I certainly understand it.
With the NSA busily vacuuming up the personal information of virtually everyone on the planet who owns a piece of technology, privacy in modern society seems all but lost. Between global positioning systems in automobiles and the predominance of security cameras in public and private space alike, the ability to “disappear” seems like an ancient concept; never to be revived again. Perhaps I am exaggerating a bit. But to get off the grid, one must hike into the deep parts of woodlands or the sandy desolation of the wilds. Even then, that land is typically monopolized by the government.
Technical achievement notwithstanding, the widespread use of the so-called “smart” phone is having a definite impact on societal interaction. It can be seen in public venues of all types. Couples sitting at dinner in a fine restaurant, one busily perusing her email. In elevators, riders keep their face buried in their palm. Face-to-face interaction has largely been replaced with electronic signals relayed over a seemingly invisible network. There is a constant need to be “connected,” and relay your personal activities to thousands, maybe millions, of onlookers.
Taki Theodoracopulos, with his old-world mentality, sees the embrace of never logging off as a sign of society’s growing indignity. “No one seems to be able to live without an audience, a paroxysm of narcissism with the Internet as its Valhalla,” he writes. As a mock user of Twitter and someone who never got sucked into the cesspool of Facebook, his point seems valid. In the scheme of things though, fretting over mass obsession with uploading minute details of one’s life is worthless. Life has greater mysteries to tackle.
What’s cause for worry is the impact “smart” phones have on privacy in general. With a device that tracks your every move while resting comfortably in your pocket, the results can only be bad if Big Brother is involved. The device prevents any enjoyer from, in a sense, detaching themselves from the rigors of always being “on.” The built-in positioning system may as well be a gigantic foam arrow with the words “Here I am Government” displayed in neon color.
Worse is that every country bumpkin and ghetto hustler now parades around with their decadent mini-computer. As Mises said:
Every advance first comes into being as the luxury of a few rich people, only to become, after a time, an indispensable necessity taken for granted by everyone.
What was once a great accomplishment of human volition has now become the masses’ thingamajig. By itself, it is good that wealth has been increased ten-fold. However, with Uncle Sam lurking behind the screen, the hyper-connected world we now live in acts as the State’s own grid for tracking movement. It’s the who’s who map the central planning politburos of Soviet Russia longed for.
I have thus far resisted the temptation of the smartphone. The situation certainly makes distant communication harder. And it brings a certain embarrassment when probed about its absence from my person. But popularity has never been one of my strong suits. I stick to a non-contract phone that affords me unlimited “texting” and calls; which I probably pay too much for and don’t utilize enough. Should I get the desire to remain anonymous, the battery can simply be removed, and thus my connection to cyberspace. Smartphone users are not so lucky, forever attached to the surveillance state via the spying eye in their pocket.
From a libertarian viewpoint, there is no right to privacy. To achieve a circumstance where your actions are totally masked, you must make a claim on the eyesight of others. Staying hidden means going out of your way to avoid all observance. It entails opportunity costs that make getting along a tad more difficult. Even so, the piece of mind that comes from being outside the bounds of supervision is sometimes worth the price.
There is something to be said for the feeling of disappearing – of being a stranger in an unfamiliar or familiar place. It provides a unique viewpoint, and a better understanding of the world socially. On his recent stay in Paris documented in the pages of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates was able to experience the sensation of withdrawing from familiar social stigmas. Shedding yourself of all watchful persons is freeing in itself, even if just for a moment. As Coates put it, “I felt like people barely saw me, like I was a presence.” It may be a lonely space, but different perspectives are necessary to understand what it means to be human and free.
I’m afraid “smart” phones, with their constant buzzing reminder of being alive, inconspicuously steal away this moment. It’s a tug and pull, modernity and tradition are. Incorporating one within the other is risky. The case of the woman marrying herself in North Dakota springs to mind the odious concoction that imprudent liberty can yield. Freedom allows for good as well as bad decisions, along with cultural degradation.
Though privacy is not a right, the thought of having a running record of my location and activities is discomforting. If I could live without a cellphone and the instant connectivity it brings, I would. Alas, modern life is complicated and most occupations rely on the candid information superhighway to distribute value. I am chained by my own choosing – and it’s far better than being a slave.