We're living in troubled times. It used to be that one's personal privacy was virtually inviolate - you could rest assured that unless you were breaking the law in some way, shape, or form, both business and government would stay out of your affairs. That's not the case anymore, I'm afraid. For all intents and purposes, privacy -at least as we knew it - is dead.
What's replaced it is something else entirely, and it's most definitely a cause for concern. To make a long story short, you are being watched. No matter who you are, no matter where you are, someone very likely has their eye on you. The only question is what their motives happen to be.
Websites like Facebook have run afoul of the law more than once for their somewhat suspect practices related to personal information, and far too many organizations include handy little footnotes in their EULAs pursuant to data mining. Chances are pretty high that if you don't read every single license agreement you come across, you've already promised your personal information to at least one company - possibly several.
At least those organizations are (presumably) operating more or less within the bounds of the law. The American government hasn't been for a while. Nowhere is this more evident than in the saga of Edward Snowden. Most of you have (hopefully) heard of him by now - he's the NSA employee who blew the lid off of what might well be one of the most comprehensive online spying programs in the history of the country.
If you're not angry about PRISM at the moment, you probably should be. It's a program which would give NSA officials unmitigated access to the personal files of pretty much anyone they desired. It's an initiative which would see websites such as Google, Facebook, and DropBox handing over control of user data to an overly draconian governmental organization. Worse, the potential for false positives - for false patterns to arise which could see innocent users put under scrutiny - is far, far too high, particularly given the poor track record the United States government has for record-keeping and safeguarding data.
Oh, and if you think that NSA officials won't abuse these resources...keep dreaming.
To be fair, it would be extremely naive to assume the United States is the only nation with this sort of far-reaching surveillance program in place. I'd be entirely unsurprised to see something identical in place in both Canada and the United Kingdom. Our governments, it seems, have become afraid of us - so much so that they must monitor our every move.
In short, this is something that you should care about. Everything else should, quite frankly, be irrelevant. These sorts of distractions are precisely why groups such as the NSA have been able to get away with so much. People are too busy watching the latest celebrity cock-up to notice that they're effectively being bought and sold behind their backs.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Snowden has - far from being declared a hero for what he did - been vilified and declared a public enemy by the United States Government. After giving up a $200,000/year position to come forward with the information, he's been publicly humiliated, and called out as a security risk by "fair-and-balanced" publications such as The Guardian (which you may recall doesn't exactly have the best track record at this point). Yet even this focus on Snowden completely side-steps the larger issue.
When he released the NSA documents, I highly doubt that Snowden had any aspirations towards celebrity status. Yet somehow, this is exactly what he's achieved. Publications seem more focused on his comings and goings, on the clash between Snowden and State, than they do about what he revealed; something which has been known to many of us in one form or another for at least a decade now:
We are being watched. We are being regulated. The information age - the age in which the Internet first caught on - has ended. Now, we live in the surveillance age. But...what can we do? How can we protect our personal information?
How can we show organizations like the NSA that we will not allow them to behave in such a fashion?
There are a few ways. First and foremost, there are plenty of open letters and petitions to congress floating around - sign one of them, if you've the chance. I would also recommend installing a VPN solution, as well. Last, but certainly not least, watch what information you're sharing online, and be sure you understand the TOS of any sites you've a membership on. To that end, the website "TOS, Didn't Read" should be a great help to you.
We're living in troubled times. Our personal, private information isn't so personal or private any longer, and we're starting to see a growing trend in which governmental organizations don't bother holding themselves accountable for what they're doing with our data. I truly hope this is a transitional period, and over the next several years, we see a marked change in the way user information is handled online.
Because at the end of the day, this isn't something we should be forced to get used to.