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My Favorite Politician Isn't Real

I wrote this in June, 2014 as part of a college course about civic responsibility. It came up today in this fediverse thread so I decided to dig it up for some reflection. Looking at it again 9 years later, I was right. I’m still a hypocrite, and the privacy situation has absolutely gotten worse.

Below is the text I wrote for the assignment, unedited from 2014.

Sam Seaborn is not a real politician. He is a character on the television series The West Wing, but if he were real, he would have my vote without a doubt. In my opinion, the best line he had in the entire run of the series was this: “It’s not just about abortion, it’s about the next 20 years. In the ’20s and ’30s it was the role of government. ’50s and ’60s it was civil rights. The next two decades are going to be privacy. I’m talking about the Internet. I’m talking about cell phones. I’m talking about health records and who’s gay and who’s not. And moreover, in a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?” Why is this the best line he ever had? Because he was right. The Internet changed the world in ways nobody could have predicated and old notions of privacy simply aren’t going to survive as the world continues to change.

Anyone who followed the news over the past eighteen months has at least heard of Edward Snowden and his disclosure of details about the National Security Agency’s operations. Every news cycle seems to contain more information about the agency and how its operations violate the privacy of millions of Americans. We hear about collection of data from cell phones, Internet traffic, and companies being forced to disclose information gathered from their customers. These companies must comply because of rulings from secret courts and they are held to secrecy in the name of national security and antiterrorism. While this seems like a massive problem on its own, government actions make up only a small portion of privacy issues today. Every major online company collects data from its users. Google records everything its customers search for, click on, and read. Facebook tracks user interests both within its own service and on other websites. Many other sites do the same in order to provide better service or show targeted ads. Nothing you, me, or anyone else does on the Internet is private. And the worst part of all of this? Nobody cares.

When most people hear about privacy issues they shrug them off, asking, “Why should I care if I have nothing to hide?” This attitude is what I want to change. I want people to care about their privacy again. Twenty years ago most people would have been appalled if everyone they knew (and in many cases, people they don’t) could look into their daily lives and see where they were and what they were doing at any given time. Today, we post everything we do on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. We willfully give all of our personal information to Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. We look the other way when we hear about the government invading our privacy.

I must admit I am a hypocrite. I am a Facebook user, I have an Android phone, and I use Gmail. All three of those things involve sending large amounts of personal information to outside companies. Why do I do this while I write so strongly about privacy? My answer is simple and is the same answer you would hear from many other people. I trade some of my privacy for the convenience of using these services. Obviously people aren’t going to completely stop using products that collect data, and frankly this is nearly impossible. I believe businesses should strive for a business model that doesn’t need information from its users so that their users can trust them. If people start to care about their privacy and privacy-minded corporations start to pop up the former will be drawn to the latter and other groups will lose out. I know this is a monumental task but I feel it is possible.

Sam was right when he said privacy would be the focus of the next two decades. What I didn’t tell you is that quote is from an episode that aired in 1999. When the episode aired, the World Wide Web was only ten years old, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter didn’t exist, and Google was less than a year old. Fifteen years later Sam is still right and it looks like the situation will have to get worse before it gets better, but we still have five years left. Think of what we can accomplish in five years if we make privacy a priority.