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It’s coming. Can’t you see it? Can’t you hear it?

It’s all around you. Closing in. Right now, as you read. There’s nothing you can do.

I’ve been slow to the party regarding social networking, suspicious of living life online. Facebook in particular seemed to be rife with opportunities for people taking advantage of you and violating your privacy. I know at least one clown who thinks it’s funny to take unflattering pictures of people while they are eating and post them online. Look at this, snigger, snigger, guffaw.

Yeah, I know you can “untag” these photos. But they’re still there. Someone has violated your privacy. You shouldn’t have to “untag” stuff, or change your permissions, or dive into the small print in order to come up with some esoteric means of ensuring your privacy, if not your dignity. This is disingenuous.

But we are all accepting it. We’re shuffling zombies. We are the Swarm.

Facebook photo violation is a small example, but all the small examples add up to a very unappealing whole. The online world, in the space of less than ten years, has a very firm grip on our lives. Data now equals currency. This has happened almost unnoticed.

The intrusion of technology and its exploitation of private lives has led to high-profile incidents. Many of these have been illustrated by the Leveson Inquiry into privacy and the press. There have been some interesting twists and turns, and more to come. The Milly Dowler voicemail scandal – which precipitated the end of the News of the World – looks like it had more to do with the police, rather than the press. But the idea that someone could get into your voicemails, listen to them and delete them, whoever was responsible, is frightening. Your private, intellectual property isn’t quite your own. It’s starting to encroach into your very time and space. If you’re not frightened by this, perhaps you should be.

In that inquiry, we’ve had two astonishing evidence sessions. One was from Formula One boss Max Moseley. This is a guy who successfully sued the News of the World for a slur made about him contained in the fine detail of a story about his encounters with ladies of the night. The amount of money he won was irrelevant; as, indeed, was the action. Max Moseley can sue about any aspect of this he likes, but it doesn’t take away the fact that his sexual activities were splattered across the front pages of a national newspaper. We know about this, and so does his wife and children. Max Moseley is not a vicar, nor is he a politician espousing family values. But even at that, when it comes to private life, is it anyone’s business, no matter who they are? Does anyone deserve that exposure and humiliation?

Here is a question I will ask of any gossip whore: if it’s alright to have a laugh at a public figure’s peccadilloes, how would you feel about having your own sexual proclivities revealed to millions of people? Even if you have nothing to hide? Don’t support something you would find personally unacceptable.

Moseley was eloquent, honest and forthright – it was a masterclass in oratory, and I had so much respect for him. That very same day, a former journalist called Paul McMullan appeared on the stand. He was not as composed and articulate, but he was equally forthright, and his testimony was devastating.

“Privacy is dead,” he said, going on to blithely comment that he thought it was perfectly justifiable for newspapers to hack emails or phone messages, or even rake through bags of rubbish, in order to get to the heart of a story. What he was hinting at, I think, was that there is a basic idea of truth to be gotten at. And it was here that my criticism of his former line of work ran into a serious obstacle.

This idea of privacy being dead is spot on. No matter what parameters you set yourself on the internet, they are being compromised before your very eyes.

You want some personal examples? Sure. The other day I did some Christmas shopping on Amazon. Once the transaction was completed, a window opened up: “Do you wish to share your purchase on Twitter or Facebook?”

I sent their customer services department an email: “No. Not under any circumstances do I wish to share purchases with a social networking service. How ridiculous. Don’t ask me this again, and please remove this feature immediately.” I was told that “some people do like to share their shopping habits online”. And basically, I can like this feature, or lump it – either way, it stays.

But I don’t think this is acceptable. You should be able to switch this function off. You should be asked if you want it in the first place. This is god-damned creepy. And the scope for social disaster is vast.

Can you imagine? On the innocent side of things, let’s say you buy a surprise present for your auntie Jemima – and whoops, with the accidental click of a button, you’ve shared it with everyone you know, including her. And of course, there are bigger potential embarrassments. Someone, somewhere, will have bought a Mrs Rubbit blow-up doll or a shiny new Feels Just Like A Biggun sex toy, and will have hit that button automatically. You know it. Someone will have done it. That’s… actually pretty funny, just like that picture of you biting into a hamburger was funny. But it’s not right.

Newspapers have gotten all manner of strange plug-ins on Facebook. If a friend of mine clicks on an article on the Guardian or the Independent, it sends a message on their Facebook wall. I’ve seen a couple of people read articles they might be a bit red-faced about. I wonder: do they realise they’ve done this? Do you really want your friends knowing that you read Pamela Stephenson-Connolly’s sex column on the Guardian? If you do, fine. Not sure I’d want that, though. And, just to stress, it’s all easily controllable… but I do wonder if some people actually realise the advertising settings on their accounts.

I have a mate who didn’t seem to have any idea that he had signed up to advertising alerts from Asda appearing on his Facebook profile. Every time he does some online shopping, Asda pings out a message. Does he enjoy any benefits from this service? Does Asda knock money off his shopping? Or – crazy idea, I know – do they pay him? If not, whom do they pay for the free advertising?

And it gets creepier still. You’ll have spotted this yourself, I’m sure. Let’s say you send an email to a friend about going on holiday – or, in my case, getting an injury. All of a sudden, adverts pop up about holidays, or support bandages on your server. Something, somewhere, is scanning your emails. I’m not suggesting a team of evil email elves is poking through your posts; there’s probably some sort of bot or other automatic, digital dimension to it. But it’s still creepy and wrong.

“Well, that’s the price you pay for a free email service,” I’m told. Is it? Did we ask for any of this? Is there somewhere you can go where you don’t have to assume your privacy is being violated?

And then there’s Spotify. It shares everything you play with your Facebook friends. Should it? Isn’t this a bit creepy? “Bob has been listening to Prussian Martial Music all night.”

These are fripperies, though, compared to some of the diabolical things being done with your data in an official capacity. Just the other week, the Government announced that our medical records will be sold to private companies. This was spun as good common sense in the present economic climate – that our medical records are a treasure trove for multinational pharmaceutical companies, and can open new doors in research. Money for nothing, effectively. Hey! Great!

But this is our private fucking medical records. Things which your closest friends and family shouldn’t necessarily be party to. Being sold off to the highest bidder!

And there we have it, acceptance in an official capacity – data is money. And the Government wants it. The Government! It’s beyond Orwell. It is an absolute, stone-cold outrage.

On the positive side, there are plus sides to scrutiny of data, records and in particular internet habits. Online child abusers have no place to hide any more. But is it fair that everyone else should be subject to having everything tracked, recorded and possibly opened out into the public eye?

Don’t doubt that this is the way it is going. Very soon, everything you do online will be opened out into scrutiny. It’s only a matter of time before this is seen as normal. “Jim searched for ‘What to do if you’re impotent’”. “Betty looked for ‘depression tips’.” “Augustine bought ‘incontinence knickers’”.

It’s coming. Our privacy will become completely eroded, because there is serious money to be made from our personal information. But will we even mind? And should we?

Paul McMullan thinks privacy is dead. Lots of internet entrepreneurs may well wish it was. McMullan posited a logically sound idea – that with the death of privacy, we will actually have the full, total truth. Is the truth enough? Is complete and utter honesty something we should worship?

Let’s look at the future, and where this openness could get us. Interconnectivity on an almost subliminal level might have some positive aspects. We might have human hive minds. It could boost team work; it could lead to the death of ego, and even a golden age of tolerance. I’ve been brewing a sci-fi short story idea about hive minds and instant neural connections for a while now. Imagine that; if your every thought and feeling was instantly shared with everyone you know, and even lots of people you don’t. If everything you see, from the moment you open your eyes in the morning until you close them again at night… and even afterwards, when you’re not even conscious, your very dreams… is automatically shared. Is this a good and right thing? Is this the direction the human race is headed?

Or is there a part of you that you want separate from the internet, from other people’s attention? Isn’t this idea of the self, the individual, actually normal and healthy?

In this future, I suspect that what will actually happen is that we’ll go on being human. Therefore, there can be no technological utopia. We’ll be slaves to advertising. And there are some ugly examples of human nature out there on the net right now – prejudices, ostracism, pigeon-holing, lying, smearing, bullying. Unless you can work out a way to eradicate these human symptoms, they’ll be very much a part of it. And that sounds like a nightmare to me.

My humble advice is: don’t allow it to happen. Don’t let technology add tags to your life. Don’t be controlled by stealth. Check the settings on any internet services you use, make sure they’re as tight as you can make them. Ask questions about things which aren’t clear; ask internet service providers to list their rules and regulations. Report things you don’t like to Ofcom and other communications watchdogs.

But above all, be prepared to disconnect yourself, and switch the computer off. This is your only means of keeping the Swarm at bay; treasure it while you can.


One Comment

  1. Well thought out post, and it leads to the only realistic conclusion. We were able to live privately in a world where digitalization and the World Wide Web wasn’t available, but through technology we are laid bare. It’s a scary thought, comforting only in that it just isn’t me being affected but the rest of the world as well.

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