The whole controversy over Snowden and US Government's acts of 'spying' center around metadata. "Data about data" is what they are looking at, along with associated patterns they may uncover. This may sound ok to many - after all, they are not really "reading" my mail, are they? So in what way are they violating my privacy?
Unfortunately what we do not realize is that with an increasing proliferation of devices that we use in our day to day life, we are putting more and more of ourselves out there. Our cellphone records show where we were physically present every moment of our lives; our interactions with other people through any electronic medium over a period of time forms patterns that we are not aware of; our card statements can be used to draw up a map of our buying behaviour, and through that, an analysis of other aspects of our lives, and so on with every piece of data we leave out there with every interaction we have with the world.
The MIT project (links given below) "immersion" shows what is possible by someone merely accessing your gmail metadata (only the from,to and cc fields, not the mails themselves). The resultant output is pretty scary. I can imagine submitting this request (I have not actually done it, since I delete most of my mails in any case, and I have a great mistrust of these things) and then staring at the resultant output. It will probably feel like taking leave of your own body and staring at yourself from somewhere up there, like they describe in those out-of-the-body experiences. I will probably come to know more about myself than I wanted to know in the first place; I will be forced to confront the real me (in a very virtual sense of course), or, to be more accurate, the real me as looked at through a particular lens, with patterns and conclusions that I never really recognized before. And what is unnerving is that other people will have access to this data, like people working for big governments. Not only to this data, but to all data about me, wherever I have left traces of myself in the digital ether. I think of this, and an involuntary shudder goes through my body. It is quite eerie to think that there is someone or some people out there who know more about me than I do myself, and who have a complete psycho-profile of me.
Some people are afraid of their own shadows, but the shadow is always one step behind you. Here are people who are like my shadows, but who are two steps ahead of me. It spooks me out no end.
So how do we escape this? I can think of a few suggestions:
1) Do not carry a cellphone
2) Do not use credit or debit cards - use cash
3) Do not use email
4) Do not use facebook, linked-in, instagram, etc. and do not allow your friends to upload your photos or tag you on them - Sadashiv Mankekar (if you have not heard of him, google) is famous for this.
In short, the way to escape this is to go live in the jungles of Denkali with Guran for company. Not a particularly relishing thought, even if Diana agrees to be around.
Or, give up all our pet notions of privacy. Like, with facebook, people have dropped their old notions of privacy, and Zuckerberg and Co. are pushing us more and more into a world where we will want to let it all hang out out there for the public to see. The youngsters are not bothered about the conventional notions of privacy that the older people seem to have. Rather than fight a battle that we cannot win, perhaps we should reconcile ourselves to this new reality. Photograph every moment of our lives and "share" it instantly, use what's app for communicating with others, have all interactions through email only, carry our mobiles with us wherever we go, and stop being worried about ghosts in the dark, like some government computer keeping track of our movements, desires and motivations.
To hell with it all. Maybe very soon God himself will request the US government for data on us. St Peter could use it for deciding what fate awaits us!
Links to the new MIT project "Immersion" (links courtesy my IIMA87 mailing group) :