In response to a public outcry, the Department of Homeland Security this week shut down a plan to create a national license-plate tracking system that would have compiled and organized data pulled from commercial and law-enforcement tag readers.
The abandonment of this program in the face of criticism is a small comfort. Some kind of location-based tracking of motor traffic seems like a fait accompli. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) wants black boxes installed in all taxicabs that would turn off their meters whenever the drivers speed. If they prove useful to city coffers in fines collected, or to law enforcement in crimes investigated, how long before their adoption is urged broadly?
It may be impossible to resist the many powerful forces demanding data on every aspect of human life. There is the desire of technocrats, both public and private, to use this trove of information to "nudge" us toward lives more in keeping with certain policy goals, commercial interests, or a particular vision of human flourishing. There is the limitless desire of law enforcement to catalog every jot and tittle about human existence in a file of potential leads. The easy manufacture of evidence through data collection will be mightily helpful in creating charges under criminal statutes written for a less transparent age.
But most insidious and powerful of all is our own desire to know ourselves in the superficial way that mass data collection affords — to "hack" our own lives, to ascribe meaning to meaningless scores in social games, and even to get marginally better deals in the marketplace. A decade ago, we feigned horror at the idea of the Bush administration looking at library records. Now, when it comes to corporations, we consent to much more invasive knowledge of our reading habits.
We're gaining the ability to track how often we listened to pop hits, and how much time we waste on Facebook. Soon we may be letting Apple listen to the sound of our blood in hopes that the information will inspire us to become fit. Let's suppose the fittest want to use the data to get a slightly better deal on health insurance. Big Brother is now the geeky shlub in the mirror: you.
I'm certainly not immune to these attractions. A new calendar app Mynd can use location data to learn how long it takes to drive from your home to your favorite diner, and build smart buffers into your day. How lovely to have a phone intelligent enough to remind you when you need to get out the door.
Not every agency that collects personal data keeps it for use against us. But even seemingly harmless innovations pose possible intrusions on privacy. When I first saw an E-ZPass (the electronic toll collector common along the Eastern Seaboard), my first thought was that it could be used to measure the time between tolls and send you a speeding ticket. Of course, it doesn't do that. E-ZPass uses that information to send travel-time estimates to electronic boards above the highway; the New York Department of Transportation says that the individual tag data is encrypted and deleted after one passes the last toll reader. But E-ZPass data has been used in divorce cases, for example.
There are also larger concerns at work. Evgeny Morozov argues that Big Data collection encircles us like invisible barbed wire, subtly persuading us to accept intrusions in our lives by private and public actors, which could jeopardize the project of democratic government itself. Big Data and the institutions that profit from its collection can reshape our social contract without any political deliberation.
Morozov is most compelling when he argues that mere privacy settings and greater transparency are not enough. What is needed are "digital provocateurs" that reveal to us the hidden political dimensions of data collection and sharing.
Instead of yet another app that could tell us how much money we can save by monitoring our exercise routine, we need an app that can tell us how many people are likely to lose health insurance if the insurance industry has as much data as the NSA, most of it contributed by consumers like us. Eventually, we might discern such dimensions on our own, without any technological prompts. [MIT Technology Review]
Is that too much to ask?
Our digital-age rebels like WikiLeaks seem to mine, steal, and leak data as indiscriminately as it is collected, hoping to shock us into a massive reaction against our rulers. Sometimes, as in the outrage against license-plate monitoring, shock is the best way to shut down an intrusion. And perhaps some great data breach will inspire a complete rethinking of the customs, laws, and culture that protect our privacy in a digital age.
But besides the occasional shocks, what we need to create is mindfulness about our data and digital activity. It would be the same kind of mindfulness that informs the hundreds of decisions we make in our daily lives to guard our privacy, and to be neighborly and socially conscious; the books we take out of the living room during a party, the trash we pick up from the street, or the goods we buy based on our informed intuition about working conditions.
All of these behaviors have analogues in our digital lives. It's time we start noticing them.