Frank J. Batavick | Columnist
A few summers ago my wife and I were preparing to visit an old college buddy in Boone, North Carolina. To fill some time over the long weekend, I suggested to my friend, via e-mail, that we visit the magnificent Biltmore estate, about 90 minutes from his house. Thereafter for the next few months, I received a steady stream of ads on my Gmail page about the delights of Biltmore. It was uncanny. Some Internet robot, commonly called a “bot,” had picked up “visit Biltmore” in my message, relayed it to a central server, and either a human or another automated bot was charged with inundating me with promotional material. I had no say in the matter.
This past week I had a meeting with my State Farm agent and he explained the workings of “In-Drive.” This auto device allows you to keep track of driving mileage to supposedly help save on auto insurance. In-Drive’s other helpful tools, like “Family Driver Monitoring,” allow you to scrutinize the driving habits of family members, especially teens. Of course, all of this is made possible by the myriad satellites positioned above the earth. To my agent’s credit, he didn’t whole-heartedly support “In-Drive” because of privacy concerns.
On the way home, I heard a report on the radio about a young woman who, when she ordered some Barry Manilow songs, started receiving ads for menopause relief medication on her Facebook page. What’s more, her boyfriend then received a Cialis ad on his Facebook page.
One more story: Uber, a rideshare and taxi service that allows you to summon a ride via your smart phone, got in trouble this past October when its employees used an internal tool, eerily called “God View,” to stalk VIP users and track what restaurants and bars they frequented (straight or gay), if they spent the night anywhere other than at-home, etc.
All of this got me thinking. It may have taken us 30 years longer than George Orwell predicted in his dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” but we now live in the world he warned us about, a world without privacy. His country of Oceania was awash in cameras capable of picking up what you said, watched, listened to, and even read at home or in the streets.
Orwell, a Brit, would take no comfort in a July 2013 report from the British Security Industry Authority that there are an estimated 4.9 million closed circuit cameras in the UK, or one for every 14 people. Here in the U.S. we have grown accustomed to cameras in many stores, outside public buildings, above traffic lights, and mounted on drones. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous cell phone cameras that have turned every owner into a potential news gatherer or privacy invader.
TV cameras, when combined with computers, smart phones, the Internet, and GPS satellites, have rudely pulled back the curtain that used to cover and protect our private selves. The interesting thing is that, unlike in Orwell’s tale, the menace comes more from corporate America than from government. Sure we have NSA snooping into our phone records as a result of the overly intrusive Patriot Act and E-ZPass tracking our travels on interstate highways. But corporations are the ones voraciously slicing and dicing data to create profiles of each citizen in order to sell us more stuff. And scattered among server farms across the nation are the bits and pieces of our identities, tiny building blocks that define who we are and what we aspire to become.
I wish I had a remedy for this gross invasion of privacy, but I fear it is too late. The horse is not only out of the barn but getting fat grazing in our pastures of data. I guess we could decide to unplug- no phone, no computer, no E-ZPass, no BGE Smart Meter. That might work for the hermits among us, but it would be suffocating for those who like convenience, information at their fingertips, and living in the moment. The most we can do is ask the likes of the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on companies that use data in ways that bully us, creep us out, or are simply not appropriate, as with that Cialis ad on a woman’s boyfriend's Facebook page.
A final thought has me harkening back to the Canadian media philosopher, Marshall McLuhan who predicted in the 1960s that someday we’d all live in a global village interconnected by an electronic nervous system. Marshall, it has happened, but you forgot to order the drapes.
Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ. He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.