The Scariest NSA-Gate Lesson: 'Private Citizen' Is Now an Oxymoron

In 1882, sensing an emerging age of secularism, Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote, "God is dead." History proved him wrong, but although God is not yet dead, something else sure as hell is: Privacy.
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In 1882, sensing an emerging age of secularism, Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote, "God is dead." History proved him wrong, but although God is not yet dead, something else sure as hell is: Privacy.

Yes, for all practical intents and purposes, privacy is a relic of the past. For years the term "private citizen" implied some degree of, well, privacy. But if you want to be a functioning citizen in modern society, you can no longer maintain your privacy. The term "private citizen" has become an oxymoron.

So toss out the classical conception of public citizen, because you don't have to run for political office to be a public citizen in today's world. In fact, we are all public citizens -- whether we like it or not.

Nothing highlights this pivotal change -- the sudden death of the private citizen -- so much as the recent revelations about NSA-snooping, which revealed that everything from your telephoned-in Dominoes pizza order to your Facebook pictures to your credit card transactions may not be nearly as secure as you once thought.

Indeed, countless bytes from your digital trail could be stored permanently on the servers of Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Skype, and so on. And through programs like PRISM, much that lies within this server data can be tapped without your consent by the government.

"Okay," someone might reply, "If you don't like it, stay off the Internet. Then you can remain a 'private citizen.'" Actually, this isn't true. For, according to the oldest definitions of citizenship, from the Greeks to the Romans, to be a "citizen" means to be active, engaged, knowledgeable. While as recently as 1990 one could expect to do this while maintain a reasonable degree of privacy, the modern world and the Internet age make the simultaneous existence of effective citizenship and privacy nearly impossible.

If you want to use the Internet to learn, your search history will be saved on Google's servers. If you want to maintain an online presence on Facebook, your profile is liable to be examined by the government without your knowledge. If you want to communicate with family and friends on Skype, details of your video chat could be saved on NSA servers. Heck, even purchasing a pizza with a credit card leaves a digital trail. Anyone who wants to operate as an effective citizen in the modern world and simultaneously maintain their privacy, at least to the extent they could back in the '90s, is deluding themselves. The world has changed far too much for that.

In the mid-1950s, mathematician John von Neumann famously spoke of an inevitable technological singularity, in which the "ever-accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life" would result in an organism singularity, beyond which human history as we know it would never be the same. The classical view of the singularity often entails a science fiction-like scenario in which technology rather than humans become the main brokers of history. But von Neumann's description of the singularity as a "point beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue" rings a bell when set against the privacy issue as well.

For the loss of privacy, the death of the private citizen, signals a fundamental shift in the history of human citizenship. The idea that anyone with a smartphone equipped with GPS -- an incredibly large percentage of the West's population -- could be tracked by governments is absolutely frightening. While governments could use this for good, to prevent terrorist attacks and so on, there is the obvious potential for abuse. And history suggests that this potential will be tapped eventually, if not by our own government then by another.

In 1984, George Orwell's protagonist Winston frets about his complete and utter lack of privacy. When I first read the lines below, my instinct told me that these words were ridiculous. Surely privacy could never shrink to such a pathetic point as Orwell described:

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live--did live, from habit that became instinct--in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

Now I'm beginning to fear that this future described above, this fundamental singularity in human history, may be closer than I could have ever imagined. Orwell's date -- 1984 -- may not have been so far off after all.

While technology can be used for good, it can also be used for ill. Like explosives, it is a tool, and the people manipulating it are fallible humans. While Orwell famously wrote that "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face--forever," I'm less pessimistic. After all, the people at the NSA are by and large great people who are obviously hard-working and professional. More importantly, our government still respects civil liberties, still respects the Fourth Amendment.

The scary thing, however -- and the most fundamental unanswered question--is this: What happens when the above is no longer true?

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