Protecting oneself on the internet is something that I'm highly passionate about. There are so many ways to get into big trouble within our online interactions that I've made it a personal mission to understand the true nature of the dangers out there.
This is the world that my children are growing up in. They have never known a life when the internet didn't exist. Social media in its various forms has become a massive part of the way they're expected to interact with the world at large, and it's my job, as their mother, to ensure that they know how to navigate this internet-based world safely.
With the increase in internet dependency within our daily lives, there are certain questions that have started to leak to the surface of my consciousness. Almost everything that we do is now online, with very few exceptions.
Sure, you have social media, YouTube and blogs, and TV through the internet means that we can watch what we want to watch when we want to watch it. However, you also have online banking, and you can buy your groceries online. I can pay for my car registration and file my taxes online. I order replacement gas bottles for the house through an app on my phone and I can report issues regarding water leaks or other hazards in my neighborhood using a different app.
My children are expected to submit their homework assignments online. They are even required to sit major exams using online tools. When they were still in high school, I got their report cards sent to me through an online website.
My husband gets his payslips online, and I get paid by overseas clients through online services. Even my royalty checks come in through online payments.
Everything about our world has shifted to online.
New Zealand, as a whole, has become a near cashless society, with EftPos found almost everywhere you go. Those payments go through the internet. Sure, I do have some cash in my wallet, but not much. Everything of importance is bought and paid for using online means.
Yes, this shift to an internet-based society has, for the most part, made our lives easier, but has it really made it safer?
How has this push to doing everything online affected our sense of privacy and security?
Warning: This blog post does contain spoilers for the movie The Circle, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson.
Connectivity is the source of danger.
How many times have to you gone to a site and they have given you the option to sign up using your Facebook, Twitter or Google account? And how many of you just click on the simplest option?
For a while there, it seemed like Facebook had their fingers in everything that we did online. However, after all the privacy issues that came to light in recent years, people were quick to disconnect their Facebook accounts from everything, and I don't blame them.
However, Google still has a large slice of the pie. It's so easy to just let Google manage all your subscriptions, but is that smart? Let's face it, Google has similar security and privacy issues to what Facebook has, only they're a little more quiet about it.
As for myself, if given the option, I will always sign up for things with my email. I deliberately create separate passwords for things, and to make it harder for someone to hack into my systems, I have different emails for different aspect of my life. It can get confusing, because I now have an insane number of emails to keep track of, but it really is the connectivity between different systems that creates the biggest danger.
As more and more of our lives moves into the internet, maintaining a sense of separation between the different components of our online lives is becoming harder and harder. As it is, there is a massive push for me to link my personal taxes to my business identity. So far, I've managed to avoid that linkage on the internet, keeping the linkage on paper only, but for how long?
Insurances and healthcare are starting to use internet-based management system. My personal medical records are already stored in a government-based centralized system, so that any doctor throughout New Zealand can access my complete medical history should I authorize that access.
And there is a push to allow people to vote for their governments (local and national) using online means.
All of this is meant to make things easier, and for that purpose, the internet-based systems are working. It is easier to use and do things. It's also easier to bring a society down to its knees.
Flip the power switch…
Should we be online for everything?
Some time ago, Netflix decided to send me one of those "we recommend for you" emails. You know the ones I mean. "Based on your recent history on our service, we thought you might like this item recently loaded." Amazon sends them too. All of those entertainment sites do.
So, I got this one Netflix message and it was featuring the 2017 movie The Circle, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson. Now, I'm a huge Tom Hanks fan, so I took a look, and the moment I saw that the premise revolved around the internet and social media, I knew I just had to watch it.
I was less than 20 minutes in, and I grabbed my daughter, who was 14 at the time, insisting that she sit down and watch it with me. The whole way through, both of us could see it coming.
Spoiler alert: If you don't want to know what happens in this movie, you might want to skip ahead to the next section.
The Circle Premise
In the movie, the world had embraced social media technology to the point that secret cameras were hidden everywhere, capturing everything that we did. They were so tiny, there was no way to know for sure where they all were, but the network of these cameras gave all the feels of Big Brother watching. That was within the first 10 minutes of the film.
The company, also known as The Circle, was so much like a cult, where everything that you did was expected to be recorded and documented on their bizarro social media system. There was even a scene where I was totally creeped out by chirpy co-workers, who were telling Emma Watson's character, Mae, that she needed to socialize more.
Mae freaks out, a little overwhelmed by the world as a whole, and decides to kayak alone in the middle of San Francisco Harbor. Of course, something like that is never going to go well. It is fiction, and writers always thrust their characters into danger before saving them.
Well, after her near-death experience, Mae chooses to go transparent, broadcasting every facet of her life for the world to see online. She wears a mini-camera, and the story turns to the scary world that I can foresee coming in real life.
The Circle petitioned the US government to make it mandatory for every US citizen to have a Circle account, linking in taxes, voting, and the like. The Circle already had medical information and education tied into their system. Why not take it that next step?
The whole time I was watching the film with my daughter, both of us could see everything becoming reality. It was like we were looking at a glimpse of what we can expect to see in only two to five years' time. It's not an exaggeration, people. Every single piece of technology that was depicted in that film exists in real life—even the little cameras. They're called GoPro, and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
The only thing that is different about our real world compared to the film was the level of connectivity between certain systems. But it's coming.
As the writer and editor, I knew that Mae (Emma Watson) would work to take down The Circle from the inside—it's inevitable storytelling—but I didn't expect the way it was taken down.
They went transparent.
To quote Mae:
There are no more secrets. Privacy was a temporary thing. Now it's over. We won't live in the shadows anymore.
It was a line from a movie, but how close is it to reality?
Is the concept of privacy on the internet a misnomer?
Does privacy on the internet even exist?
For years, people have been screening everything that we post. The podcast IRL by Mozilla examined some of the issues revolving around privacy in the online world in their recent episodes.
Everyone has been so up in arms over Zuckerberg and Facebook's strategies to monetize the internet world, selling our data to the highest bidder, yet we freely gave that information away—and more. Sundar Pichai, Google's CEO, has also been racked over the coals for Google's treatment of our personal data, and people flock to Google to create new accounts and do their searches through Chrome and on the Google search engine every day.
GDPR has had an interesting impact on the internet as a whole, bringing discussions about internet security and general privacy to the public forum. Opt-in policies are now mandatory, and we, the little guy, have the right to demand to know exactly how our data is being used—though we may never get the real answers.
Everything we do online is being recorded by some system somewhere. At the moment, our online banking activities are separate from our social media activities (unless you become the idiot who shares their credit card details on YouTube—no joke, some twenty-something did that a few years ago, and she shared the CVC security number too... IDIOT!). Our taxes are not a matter of public record. The way we vote is still anonymous—for the most part.
But what if those thin walls of separation between the various online components are taken down? What if a company like Facebook or Google grow to the point where they have not only the technical knowhow but the power to truly become a fully integrated system, controlling every aspect of our lives?
What if the concept of privacy on the internet really was over?
The answers are not easy.
There are no answers on this issue—not easy ones. Something will have to give, and there will be people who don't like the outcomes.
We, as a people, have fought for government transparency for years. Our governments, regardless the country you live in, are meant to be there to serve the people. In a democracy, we have the right to know the truth as to what our elected representatives are doing with taxpayers' money. We have the right to hold them accountable to their decisions, right or wrong.
But 100% transparency also means no privacy. What happens behind the closed door of the bedroom becomes public knowledge. Our bathroom routines become known by all.
Sure, that might sound funny now, but how much of your personal life do you really want to be known by the public?
As much as the idea scares me, I know that the world depicted in The Circle is only a few years away. It's coming. Because of our constant shift to using internet-based management systems, eventually enough momentum will be had that there will be no stopping it.
It's not here yet, so you have time to look at the situation and decide which side of the line you'll be on when it finally comes.
Will you be one of those who embraces the technology, accepting it for what it is and shaping a new world that in some many ways is already here? Or will you be one of those who clings to the idea that privacy on the internet can truly exist?
As for me, I want to find a happy medium. I don't ever want to be totally transparent like Mae was—like she wanted the world to become. Yes, I want to know what our politicians do, and what the tech-powers are doing. But I like having control over certain amounts of data, holding it back from certain powers that be.
If I need to, I will resort to good old-fashion pen and paper to keep important details. But I accept the fact that eventually I'll have to give in about linking my personal taxes to my business identity in the online world.
As I said near the beginning of this post, this is the world that my children are growing up in. They have never known what it was like to be without the internet, or a computer, or cell phones. They do know what cash looks like, because we still have it, but for how long?
At times, I feel that the world is changing faster than we can keep up. Technology has grown beyond our understanding. Are we ready for it? Probably not, but I do know one thing for sure.
Privacy is not dead yet, but it is dying.
Go watch The Circle.
It's not often that I recommend a book or a movie through my public channels, but I suggest that every parent sits down with their teenagers and watch The Circle together. Have those discussions with your children about the world they are living in.
It's coming, people. Help your children understand how to survive in an internet-based world.