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Where sheep may safely graze? New times, hidden divides

June 30, 2020

This is a time for coming together, right? No matter what country, political system or social echelon you live in, wouldn’t you think that we could unite to defeat the coronavirus?

Obviously not. And it’s hardly surprising that our pre-existing divisions have been immune from the depredations of the pandemic.

While our attention seems to be permanently focused on social gaps (rich and poor) and political divides (democracy, despotism, right and left), do we care enough about another divide that gets less attention, except among the tech community and a few journalists dedicated to the subject?

I’m talking about a world divided between those who care about their personal data, and those who don’t.

I got to thinking about this when I read an article about TikTok, an app much beloved among teenagers and millennials. What could be more fun than recording a 15 second video on your phone that goes viral in the blink of an eye? Fun, funny and famous. Perfect.

But how many of those delirious users know or even care that TikTok hoovers up your data in far greater detail than Google or Facebook for reasons known only to its Chinese developer?

And anyway, what’s data to a teenager. Where you live, maybe, being pestered by pervy 50-year-olds, sure. But stuff the rest of us worry about, such as credit card fraud, identity theft, unwanted ads? No worries. Not many teenagers have bank accounts with lots of money, credit cards with huge limits and houses that can be burgled to order. Houses might be a worry, but that’s Mum and Dad’s problem, isn’t it? So why worry? After all, everyone’s collecting data on us. As long as no one messes with our mobile phones, it’s all good.

There are lots of grown-ups with the same view. You could call them grazers, as in “where sheep may safely graze”. They buy online. They have maybe two or three stock passwords. The share their holiday pics on Instagram and Facebook with not a care for the possibility that someone might be waiting for them to go away so that they can break in and take their valuables. They cheerfully email all and sundry, and spread their email addresses and phone numbers all over the internet.

Then other are others for whom the enemy is always at the gate. You could call them preppers, after those who build bunkers and stock them with weapons and supplies for use in an apocalypse.

Preppers tear off any paper that has their names and addresses – from envelopes, bills and so forth – before they put them in recycle bins. Anything with personal information they shred. They have sixteen internet passwords that they change regularly. They have the best virus checker and disc cleanser you can buy. They cover their webcams with tape. They know all about governments and criminals that hack into their phones and such up their data. They’re always on the alert for spooks, conspiracies and data hackers.

Before Google, Facebook and Big Data, most of us were grazers. Even in the unlikely event that someone used our stolen credit card details to go on a spending splurge, we felt pretty safe in the knowledge that the banks would alert us, or, if we cottoned on ourselves and let them know, the card issuer would compensate us for our losses.

There are still plenty of grazers out there. Teenagers who know the dangers but don’t care. People who hardly ever use the internet but are forced to do stuff on line, and, because everybody else does, use email. People still trust those who hold our data – governments, banks, the NHS and other safe institutions.

But I sense that more of us are becoming preppers. When we like some Facebook post from someone expressing an extreme view, and the next moment we’re bombarded with political ads. When the government asks us to sign up to a track and trace app that works by recording our proximity to someone who’s infected. Is this an easy way of allowing the authorities to know where we are at any moment of the day, like they can on those cop shows?

Thirty years ago I knew a guy who was totally off grid. He did the books for a small company I worked for before I went into business myself. He claimed to be unknown to the Inland Revenue, to the Social Security people and to anyone else that collected data on us. He had no bank account or credit cards. He only worked with cash.

Could he get away with that now? Maybe, if he was an illegal immigrant or if he worked through multiple false identities. But if he stepped out of line, he’d be caught soon enough, provided the relevant authorities could be bothered, which they likely would only if he was engaged in some form of organised crime, such as drugs, major fraud or people trafficking. It he was able to remain anonymous it would have been because he was small fry.

By the fact that I’m writing this, you’ll probably gather that we’re on the prepper side of the fence, But there are plenty of grazers still out there, blissfully unaware of the implications of leaving themselves open not just to fraudsters but to manipulation and even political control, should our gradual slide toward authoritarian government continue. There are people who would always lock their front doors, but aren’t even aware of how many virtual doors and windows they’re leaving open.

The trouble is, vigilance is hard work. It’s not just a matter of being aware of what is happening. Understanding what might happen is just as important. And so is doing what you can to protect yourself.

Which is why, without becoming paranoid and delusional, we not only need to ask ourselves what those sweet little apps like TikTok are doing – or could do – with our data, but ask the same question of Google, Facebook, institutions and governments.

Because, like it or not, we’re going through a period of massive change. In the 1930s, who suspected that Germany would use IBM machines to collect data that could be used to identify and destroy millions of people in the following few years?

Better surely to understand the implications of our online lives than to wake up one morning to find ourselves in a new reality from which we can’t escape.

4 Comments
  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    Good warning. But too late.
    If you want a longer rant, ask… But I think you know already.

    • You’re always welcome to rant Debby. But not too late for everyone. As I said, there are plenty of grazing sheep out there.

      • deborah a moggio permalink

        I know Europe and (I assume, by extension at least for the next couple of months) U.K. have tried to rein in Google, for example. However, most of the apparent “choices” to opt out of tracking do not turn off no matter what you choose. I know there are supposed to be some alternate apps that don’t have that feature, but I find it hard to believe that they are any cleaner.
        Even deleting Google may not remove it. Turning off the phone, unless the battery is pulled may also not cut you loose.
        There are some states here that are trying to figure out just what kind of surveillance there really is on our phones and other equipment. It varies, of course, by manufacturer, what apps come on the machine, which ones we even know about, what country we’re in…
        A friend of mine tried to keep his phone “black” and had the expertise to try to do it. After 18 months of trying and finding each time he thought he had it done that he was wrong, he settled for a level of coverage he could easily check up on. At least, he said, he knew what they knew about him. Even at that, he was not sure there were not others he had not detected.
        The needed information on most all of us is already in the hands of people who do not need it, did not acquire it honestly and can’t be trusted to destroy it.

        I don’t care. I’m not about to go and do anything blatantly stupid. I do what I do at a low level and am not by any measure a worthwhile target. If I get robbed, I’ll figure out what to do next. If I don’t, then life goes on. But there are things I’m not willing to learn– Zoom, for example. Facebook for another. I’m not willing to spend my time learning how to shut out all possible attacks, even if I thought that was possible.
        I’m almost beginning to be willing to cut Zuckerberg some slack. He’s a rotter as far as I’m concerned, but the idea that we are willing, indeed demanding, to let the big IT folks decide what we should not/cannot see is a greater threat to my idea of freedom. Zuckerberg keeps trying to thread a rope through the eye of a needle. There is no way to block some content preemptively and not set up a system that allows ANY content to be blocked preemptively. The idea that those I vehemently disagree with should not have a platform is not my idea of freedom. Let them shout from the rooftops. That way they can be monitored. Force them into dark corners and we won’t know what they’re up to till they strike.
        Instead, turn it off if it offends. Ignore it if you don’t like it. Don’t ban it.
        Take the responsibility for your environment on yourself.

        Looks like two separate issues, but in my mind they are not far apart. Demand accountability, yes. Find ways to catch thieves and conmen, yes. Make sure true presumption of privacy is protected, yes.
        Demand that you never see or hear anything that upsets you, no.
        If we allow our fears or laziness or greed to allow us to accept government or corporate interference in our private lives, we’ve lost the world.

        Please, U.K. and Europe, lead the way. There are too many sheep here baaing for a big person with a long stick to protect them at any cost. They don’t seem to understand it can be used on them as well.

      • Thanks Debby. That’s not a rant. It’s an essay! I’m largely with you. We take reasonable precautions, but we’re not in a lather of paranoia. I do agree that banning content, unless it breaks laws, doesn’t work. At least I’ll say that if Trump gets his just deserts in November. Re the UK and the rest of Europe, I would say that the EU are tougher than we are likely to be as long as the current government is in power.

        And yes, when we start being monitored as in China, we’re in trouble.

        I much appreciate your detailed comment. S

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