Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

by A. E. O'Neill

[Originally published in The Vancouver Sun, April 20 2000]

"You are on camera an average of ten times a day. Are you dressed for it?"

My first reaction to the Kenneth Cole billboard was, of course, a mental montage of all the worst possible places I might have been filmed without my knowledge. With a few possible exceptions, I couldn't think of any real harm in being immortalized on various ATM, elevator, bank, gas station and hotel lobby surveillance tapes. In fact, the rapidity with which my "oh my god" response evolved into "oh, who cares" surprised me. All this talk about online privacy and protecting personal information has the world in a panic, and yet I was relatively unconcerned by the fact that every day an untold number of people and/or organizations might be physically watching me.

Is a threat to the anonymity of your online persona more nerve-wracking than the fact that satellites can tell your real hair color from orbit? Maybe we feel more comfortable with someone peeking in our bedroom window than having access to our email address because we've become desensitized to issues of physical privacy by traditional media. Game shows and talk shows are gradually fulfilling the voyeuristic bloodlust predicted by sci-fi classics like "Rollerball" and "The Running Man." Hell, after sitting through night after night of "I'm marrying my sister," The World's Funniest Police Brutality Videos and anything with Regis, who wouldn't tune in to see a gladiatorial match between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura? But we'll probably have to wait until Election 2004 for that.

Maybe it's because we've become so accustomed to seeing into the lives of others on television and the Internet that we've resigned ourselves to a lack privacy online and off. While no one likes the idea of being watched, for most of us, the benefits of divulging personal information far outweigh the imagined dangers.

Do you actually read the entire privacy statement before signing up for free email or ordering a book? How many times have you forked over your email address and thought up a clever (and promptly forgotten) password to gain "member" access to a site you never returned to? Do you use the same password for everything? Last time I had a brush with privacy paranoia, I spent about three hours with my cookie notification on before the "oh, who cares" response took over.

Infrequent high-profile security breaches inevitably stir up concern for the way our personal information is stored and distributed, but retailers are banking on the public's desire to customize content and it seems to be paying off. Companies are now tracking our spending habits, our travel plans, and even our exact physical location, as a means to pinpoint our relevant demographic consumer information.

In an interview for the Globe & Mail, futurist Tod Maffin predicts that within the next few years, even cell phones will become "online shopping machines," capable of tracking our whereabouts and transferring that information to retailers. Your user profile, shared by multiple subscribers, gives retailers all the information they need to target you as you walk by a favorite lunch spot or run out of an essential item. Says Maffin, "I don't want to have to go to the store every two weeks to buy a pack of razor blades. I want the pack of razor blades to come to me."

This brings to mind the cautionary words of Ted Kaczinsky: "technology is a more powerful social force than the aspiration for freedom."

Little by little, we sign away our rights to privacy and autonomy because each technological advance offers an immediate reward of convenience. A small measure of freedom is gained by not having to make a trip to the drug store every two weeks, but what price will we ultimately pay when our every move is observed, tracked and tabulated, our every need anticipated and satisfied — sometimes before we even realize we've had it?

With every anarchist conspiracy theory ever hatched at my disposal, I still don't have an answer, or even a conclusion, to the privacy dilemma. I'd no sooner sacrifice the modern conveniences of television and the Internet than I would cars and indoor plumbing. These conveniences take away a degree of personal choice and certainly of privacy, but as a society, we have neither the ability nor the desire to reverse progress.

Most of us exist somewhere in between the two extremes; my libertarian side balks at the intrusion of society into private life, but my consumerist side couldn't care less because it's too busy juggling a cell phone, Palm Pilot and six remote controls. The balance is ultimately, utterly, personal. And therein lies the biggest challenge; in a time when the greatest technological advances are in communication, keeping a level of sovereignty over private life is the one area where we are left to fend for ourselves.