The privacy cat is out of the bag

Gibbs wonders if we could regain privacy through transparency

There comes a point in many situations where you have to recognize that the cat is not only out of the bag, it has stolen your wallet and your car keys and has taken the I-15 to Vegas.

And such is the case when it comes to monitoring and privacy. For example, The New York Times reports that German legislators have reopened their investigation into Facebook (do they call it "GesichtBuch" there? Probably not).

Germany's problem with Das Facebook began earlier this year when the data protection commissioner of the Hamburg Office of Data Protection and Freedom of Information, Johannes Caspar, charged that the company was illegally building a database of members' photos without their consent and started an inquiry. The inquiry was suspended in June in the belief that Facebook would mend its evil ways and change its policies.

BACKGROUND: Germany reopens proceedings against Facebook's facial recognition

Alas, the inquiry has been reopened as apparently Facebook hasn't fügte sich (toed the line), and regarding the restarted investigation the commissioner noted that the facial recognition issue has "grave implications for personal data."

At the heart of Germany's problem is Facebook's policy that users are automatically opted-in to the image archiving process and users have to explicitly opt out to avoid getting tagged and bagged. The Germans (quite reasonably in my humble opinion) think this is nicht gut and want to Schlag auf den Kopf Facebook ihre Köpfe (slap Facebook upside their heads).

This, of course, would be a minor blow to Facebook compared to their, shall we say, dismal stock price performance which as of this moment in time is $19.87, which is just over 50% of the IPO's opening price! That's a fall that, according to Bloomberg, has wiped out more than $40 billion off the company's market value since its IPO earning it the distinction of being the worst performer of all large IPOs on record. Alongside that disaster, the Germans' problems with the company's facial recognition program must look like kleines Bier (small beer).

I have to digress for a moment and ask how anyone could have been taken in by the Facebook IPO? Really? A company with no major, sustainable or clearly defined revenue stream and no big plan for future revenue growth? If you were one of the early sucke-, um, investors buying Facebook stock, I have a bridge I'm looking to sell ... it's a really nice one ...

Anyway, even though the Germans have a good ethical platform for their issues with Facebook it's zu spät (too late), because on the grand scale it's all Wasser unter der Brücke (water under the bridge). Why? Because the U.S. government in the form of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency and many other TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) have been doing that and far more lo these many years.

Here in the U.S., Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's privacy subcommittee and who I greatly admire, has called for regulation of facial recognition and "called on the FBI and Facebook to change the way they use facial recognition technology." Franken has said, "I believe that we have a fundamental right to control our private information."

The senator is correct, we did have a fundamental right ... unfortunately in the U.S., that right was infringed then shredded and then finally obliterated many years ago.

The fact is our personal data have been captured, cataloged, indexed, sliced and diced for so long that there's no going back. It's like contracting cancer ... you can get treatment and you might get well but you're never technically cured, you're simply "in remission."

If only facial recognition were the whole problem. The fact is that in the real world we have surveillance video cameras everywhere, private telephone calls are routinely intercepted by the NSA, terahertz radar is emerging that can see through walls and through your clothes from a mile away, drones that can flit over and around you and spy on you without you noticing are becoming commonplace, while on the horizon are cameras that can "look" around corners.

But that's not all! Online, pretty much everything you do -- every email, every Facebook posting, every Twitter update -- is being monitored by some organization, somewhere be it your ISP, the FBI, the CIA or the NSA ... and it's all being recorded, tabulated, cross-referenced and stored for who knows how long.

And that's the problem with all attempts to wind back the privacy clock: It's way too late and not just a smidgen too late. The cat is out of the bag, the ship has sailed, the fat lady has sung, the curtain has come down, and it's good night to privacy ... unless ...

Yep, there is a way to defeat The Man ... what if we all make a concerted effort to be totally transparent? What if we all make being open and as loquacious as possible the norm? What if we post every meal we have and every photo of every meal, every thought we have, every sight we see, notes on every book and article we read, every like and dislike we have ... in short, what if we make the minutiae of our lives public? Could we swamp the watchers to the point where there was simply too much information for them to digest? Could we all disappear in a sea of social noise and thereby regain our privacy?

So, rather than putting the cat back in the bag, could we create a world in which there were so many cats and so many bags that no one could figure out what was going on?

Gibbs is, unfortunately, not invisible in Ventura, Calif. Be transparent at and follow him on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.