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02.12.2015

The Snowden Effect: Part One

In June 2013, it was revealed to the world that the NSA was getting a bit too friendly with our digital information. Over the next two blogs we’re going to take a look at how it began, as well as the effect it is had on us after the whistle was blown by the man at the centre of it all; Edward Snowden.

Some label him a traitor. Some label him a hero. In reality, he is just a citizen like the rest of us. It really doesn’t matter who or what he is, but instead the issue that he brought to light: the issue of data privacy.

In 2007, a clandestine surveillance program called PRISM was launched, under which the NSA collected internet communications of foreign nationals from at least nine major US internet companies. For years these same companies had been advocating the importance of protecting consumer privacy. However, as the revelations about the PRISM program unfolded it suddenly became clear that privacy is a tangible commodity.

ORIGINS

To find out where this all started, we’ll have to look back at when ecommerce began to develop. Prior to the advent of online shopping, we would walk into a store and pay over the counter using perhaps a card or the change rattling around in our pocket. Then, in the mid 90’s, we were offered the choice to place an order for delivery online. To make the experience smoother, the internet needed a way to remember details about the user. It was achieved in the form of cookies; small text files that stored user preferences on the user’s computer. It was a smart, simple move, but it marked the very origins of what would later become known as the Information Age.

It wasn’t until the late 90’s when companies started introducing privacy policies to explain what was happening with this data being collected. However, users wanted some form of protection online.

It was addressed in early 2001, over a dozen bills were introduced in the US congress to protect consumer privacy.

It lasted just 7 months.

On the 11th September 2001, terror struck. All of the privacy legislations were abandoned, and a complete reversal in the shape of the Patriot Act replaced it. Companies started reversing their privacy policies. In those 7 months prior, a privacy policy would tell you that you’re totally anonymous. Following the Patriot Act, a privacy policy deemed that – when necessary – you’re not.

It became the foundation for an entirely new business model: the collection of personal data.

NO FREE LUNCHES

To find an example of this business model, you only have to look as far as the world’s most popular free-to-use social networking site, Facebook. What is it exactly that makes the company so valuable?

The answer: it’s you.

There is a plethora of free services on the web, each offering their own unique way to connect with others around the globe. Whether it’s revenue from targeted advertising or trading with third-parties, companies profit from the data its users provide. Across the world, the personal lives of people willing to share them, sit on a server inside a data centre somewhere. High-level encryption keeps it safe. Secure. But as the old saying goes, if you’re not paying for the service then you are not the customer; you’re the product.

It raises the question, how ‘free’ are these free-to-use sites. What are we actually signing away when we sign up? When was the last time any of us actually read the terms and conditions?

Three months? Five years? Never?

Nobody has time to read through a circa 20,000-word document of capitalised text each time a company updates its policy. Signing a mortgage agreement requires less paperwork, it begs a profound and somewhat troubling question:

What if privacy policies were not so much about protecting privacy at all, but instead relinquishing it?

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