The aim was to write an article for “The Guardian” while exploring the today’s threat to people’s privacy originating in mobile technologies, and to link it to Orwell’s concept of “telescreens”. Even such common things as the social media destroy a significant amount of an individual’s privacy, and do it in a subtle way so that people mindlessly accept it. One of the situations considered is related to “Pokemon Go”’; this app most clearly demonstrates the privacy issues of such applications, and has caused some debates worldwide. The text begins with appealing personally to the reader, and showing them that their privacy is violated. It then goes into further details, explaining that not only “Pokemon Go” but also such apps as Facebook or Twitter work as “telescreens” and that people mindlessly accept this. Next, it is shown that even having a turned off mobile phone can expose one’s location. The conclusion considers the possible ways to protect one’s privacy, providing the author’s opinion about one such method, which is limited, but is, apparently, the only one available.
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Telescreens in Our Pockets
Do you, my dear reader, value your privacy? Do you think that it would be unpleasant, to put it mildly, if every part of your life was made public? Do you regard the idea of being constantly watched as an unacceptable violation of your rights, perhaps as an intrusion into your personal space?
I am almost certain that you will answer positively to all these questions. “Of course”, you will say“, it is my right to go for a stroll in the evening and not to tell the public about where exactly I am going”. How about telling about your whole itinerary to a for-profit company? And not just telling them the itinerary of your stroll, but constantly revealing to them where you are and what you do, 24/7. Hmmm…
And yet, this is what happens to virtually everyone nowadays. Such mobile applications as Niantic’s “Pokemon Go”, or the GPS, make it much more apparent: the apps constantly track our location to show us where to go next. Well, at least some might think that showing us where to go next is the main purpose of tracking. But is it indeed?
After doing a small research, you can easily find out that “Pokemon Go” obtains more than just the basic information needed for the game via the Google accounts. When you are playing the game, the owners not only register your mobile phone’s location–they also track your IP address and the web page that you visited before playing.
A noteworthy detail: Niantic, Inc. could have created the game based on maps and locations that would not demand that the consumer enters their name. They chose not to.
An analogy springs to mind: the telescreens from George Orwell’s “1984”, a critique of the UK’s situation in the 1950s. Only the telescreens were blunt and obvious; every inhabitant of the dystopian Oceania knew that they were constantly watched. The apps such as the “Pokemon Go” are clandestine. Their apparent purpose is to provide fun for the clients; however, the real purpose of any product is to bring profits to the company that created it. And would a private corporation mind against gaining extra profit by using a product in additional ways, such as gathering the information about the web pages we visit and selling it to other enterprises so that they might create “more efficacious” advertisement, or tracking our locations and also selling the data to anyone interested, also for commercial purposes? Surely not. It is a naive assumption of many that private, for-profit enterprises would regard our interests more highly than the very purpose of their existence–getting as much money as possible, with the minimal use of resources.
But is there anyone who watches the watchers? It might be logical to assume that the privacy policies of companies should be controlled by state law. And indeed, the “Pokemon Go” was labeled a “national security threat” and a “cyber threat” in some countries. However, the real reason for this was not the privacy of the customers, but the fear that the government’s military or intelligence-related objects or operations will be revealed. The government will sooner or later have to respond to the public about its military operations, and if its members fail too often, they are less likely to be re-elected. But why should the government concern itself about an issue that the public does not care about? Before the private users of mobile apps make a strong demand that their privacy is protected, the government is unlikely to adopt any legislation.
Furthermore, most, if not all, governments themselves are not squeamish about utilizing modern technology to gain private information about its users. In fact, the user of a mobile phone can be tracked even when that phone is turned off if the battery and the SIM-card are both in place. Governmental institutions could easily request such data from a private corporation. So, whether you want it or not, you can easily be tracked if you have a mobile phone with you–although it might seem less likely that the government would use such information for commercial purposes.
So, long story made short, who should watch the watchers? Governments have the resources to do so, but they are nationally limited, whereas the private corporations are not; they are unlikely to act unless clearly prompted to, and even if they do act, can we be sure their measures are effective? In any case, in the current situation, the watchers (governments) that watch the watchers (corporations) also need to be watched–by the civil society. This apparently does not go into infinity, but the effectiveness and promptness of the mechanism are questionable.
It is also our fault that we mindlessly allow the companies to use our private data. However, even though we could limit our use of apps that track our locations, not using a mobile phone nowadays seems unrealistic. Can there even be an effective way to protect our privacy from the subtle telescreens that seem to be everywhere?
While such a way has not been found, it falls to you, dear reader, as well as to me, and to each one of us, to watch over the watchers. Unless there is a civil society, there will be no individual privacy.