Mark Zuckerberg should have taught the U.S. Congress the primary fact of digital life: All things digital are public.
If it is digital, it is public or may one day be. The hackers of the world have solved the best of encryption schemes. Our own National Security Agency’s tools for cracking private digital fortresses have been stolen, sold and made available to state-sponsored hacking teams and corporate entities. If it is digital, it can be opened, shared and modified in every way possible. Get used to it.
Privacy used to exist only to the degree that one did not share one’s information. Even that standard is now breached on a daily basis. Every time you drive over a bridge that photographs your license plate, walk down a street where facial-recognition technology records your every step, use your credit card, make a digital phone call or send a message, you are recording for posterity your actions, locations and even emotions. We live in a digital world, and all things digital are public.
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The absurdity of the otherwise elegant presentation that Zuckerberg gave to the Congress rests in his statement that you own your own information and can choose who to share it with, that you can opt out of the various data sales schemes Facebook uses to make money.
In fact, you can’t. It is not Facebook’s fault; it may, indeed, mean well and be sincere in its efforts to give you at least the semblance of control over what you post. But the moment you take a digital picture and store it on Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon or any cloud server, you have transferred that information to a hackable site. And the world’s hackers are stripping those images for nefarious uses. As you text your best friend, your worst enemy can monitor your keystrokes long before your friend gets the message.
And more than our social interactions are at risk of invasion. The contrived, convoluted Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a set of rules that supposedly guard our medical information, is a joke on the human privacy condition. Every digital medical record is designed to be shared amongst the vast array of medical professionals who need to see your information and the insurance companies who pay for your care. They, the hospitals and even some employers, then sell that information, supposedly stripped of your name, to drug and medical supplies companies. Yet, once diabetes is put in your medical record, you instantly start getting ads for diabetes medications. How anonymous is that?
And it goes even deeper into our psyches. Our moods are quantified by the words and emojis we put into our texts, by the smiles and frowns in our photos and by the websites we visit. Our psychological profiles are examined and quantified. We are then targeted by Cambridge Analytica, for example, with ads that are based on these factors. We can also be scrutinized by prospective employers or even by dates. Our thoughts are no longer our own, never mind our posts.
And what about our souls? If the soul is the reflection of our moral, ethical and spiritual being, is it not being exposed by our simple, everyday choices? What we say, who we associate with, what we believe in, even what we confess are all becoming commoditized.
Once we understand that all things digital are public, we can craft a new sensibility around what privacy means, or if it still has a meaning at all. It’s even possible that complete transparency will transform our world into a better place.
Zuckerberg should have taught Congress that we suddenly live in a new world, a world that Facebook has not yet come to grips with. Legislation? Legislate what, our dreams? With some of the new brainwave recorders and artificial intelligence interpreters, even our dreams will soon be up for sale.
Dr. Kevin R. Stone is an orthopedic surgeon at The Stone Clinic and chairman of the Stone Research Foundation in San Francisco.