In last night’s State of the Union speech, President Obama spoke (often eloquently) about a great number of issues from economic mobility, to clean energy, to gender equality, but I felt at least one glaring omission from his speech. I was extremely disappointed that President Obama failed to discuss NSA surveillance, net neutrality, and the general issue of “infopolitics.”
I came across the term “infopolitics” in a NY Times opinion piece published earlier this week (read it in full here).
“Infopolitics encompasses not only traditional state surveillance and data surveillance, but also “data analytics” (the techniques that enable marketers at companies like Target to detect, for instance, if you are pregnant), digital rights movements (promoted by organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation), online-only crypto-currencies (like Bitcoin or Litecoin), algorithmic finance (like automated micro-trading) and digital property disputes (from peer-to-peer file sharing to property claims in the virtual world of Second Life).”
The column argues that popular thinking and policymaking need to acknowledge the extent to which infopolitics shapes nearly every aspect of modern life, and to instate the necessary reforms before even more breaches of individual rights and other grievances come to light.
In many ways, it’s discomforting to ascribe so much power or importance to the virtual world. It’s easy to remain complacent and think “I have nothing to hide,” or “If I’m responsible and careful online, nothing bad can happen to me,” but I think the unaffected minority is very rapidly shrinking. Just look at all that has happened in the past year. Revelations about the extent of NSA surveillance. Data stolen from 40 million Target customers. Evidence of Chinese government hacking activity into numerous US agencies from commercial companies such as Coca-Cola, to news agencies such as the NY Times, to companies essential to infrastructure such as electrical power grids, gas lines, and waterworks. The closure of Silk Road and the explosion of Bitcoin. The end of net neutrality.
If those occurrences still seem too far-removed, I can share more personal stories. My brother and his roommates lost money investing in Bitcoin. A friend of mine recently got engaged and expressed surprise at how her email inbox was suddenly flooded with advertisements from wedding planners (we think they found out via her change in Facebook relationship status). I have numerous friends who were fined for pirating movies and music (arguably their fault, but still). If you think hard enough, I’m sure you can conjure up familiar experiences.
Another essential point that the column makes is about the blurring of the line between virtual and physical reality.
“We like to think of ourselves as somehow apart from all this information. We are real — the information is merely about us. But what is it that is real? What would be left of you if someone took away all your numbers, cards, accounts, dossiers and other informational prostheses? Information is not just about you — it also constitutes who you are… We need a concept of infopolitics precisely because we have become infopersons.”
I think that people are coming to realize that by allowing our information to come under scrutiny, we are allowing ourselves to come under scrutiny, whether from the NSA, Facebook, credit agencies, or other information agencies that will undoubtedly come into existence in the coming years. When we enter a credit card number to make a purchase on Amazon, what other third parties will see that information? When we apply for health insurance, can we really trust the health insurance companies to keep our SSN’s private?
I’m certain that how we regulate the dissemination and protection of private information will be a big, if not the biggest, challenge of our generation. But change won’t happen, and it certainly won’t happen fast enough, unless it is acknowledged and discussed by those in positions of power.