Privacy or security? - How we are ending up, step-by-step, in The Circle


It's one of the most spoken about books in the last 5 years: The Circle by Dave Eggers. It's about a world where privacy doesn't exist and how the Internet company The Circle knows everything about everyone. What did you think when you heard about or read this information? Science Fiction? Dystopia? Doomsday thinking? I hope that you are correct.

Let me refresh your memory. In The Circle we are following the main character Mae Holland. Mae gets a job at The Circle Internet company, which is like a combination of Google, Twitter and Facebook. The social media run by the company compels the users to totally disclose their private business with others.

Users are not forced by the law to do this, there are no sanctions, but the social pressure of The Circle is so big that it appears suspicious to keep things private. 'Privacy is theft' is the moral, and 'secrets are lies' is also another lovely motto. Politicians begin wearing permanent cameras on themselves to show they have nothing to hide.

The Circle: all fantasy?

The novel from Eggers reads like the famous 1984 by George Orwell. It paints a pretty scary world where you constantly feel spied upon. Enjoy the breath of relief when you close the book, it's just fantasy, until you open the newspaper.

The media has been filled with attacks and impending attacks. Politicians and experts clamber over each other with their theories about how to prevent the spread of terrorism and prevent more incidents. A frequently heard solution? Give security services a full mandate and pull back privacy from the people.

Reduce our privacy

European politician Guy Verhofstadt is one-such hardliner, he thinks we should reduce privacy protection. It's a statement that could have come from The Circle. Verhofstadt thinks that we should replace our national intelligence services with a European CIA. I don't think it's necessary. European intelligence services operate very well, if they would just communicate better.

In The Netherlands the recent attacks have provided an argument for the reduction of our privacy protection. The cabinet want the possibility of intercepting Internet traffic on a large scale.

Kabinet zet plannen grote schaal aftappen internetverkeer door. (only in Dutch)

Are the Government looking for suspects or do they just not trust specific telephone traffic? The result is listening to the communications of entire neighbourhoods or intercepting all data relating to specific foreign countries. The Netherlands will remain the country where the most interception happens.

Trawling nets are not a solution

Ultimately I am not against intercept. It's fine to determine which telephone call a suspect made 5 minutes after a bomb attack, he wouldn't have been ordering pizza. But gathering as much data as possible in a trawler net, that I don't believe in. In reality you end up gathering a lot of hay, where you will never find the needle.

Now you are probably thinking, why are you worrying? Is privacy so important? What do you have to hide? Indeed, maybe I don't have anything to hide and nothing to be embarrassed about, but I do have the right to have secrets and my privacy. Imagine the norm was that your postman opens all of your post, and in front of the whole street reads out a postcard that your mother-in-law has sent you. The whole street can enjoy the message too. Is there anything secret in the postcard? Now, probably not. Do you find it unpleasant? I think so.

Technology companies acting as privacy guards

Thankfully there is a counter-movement which is supporting the protection of our privacy, coming from the technology sector. Think of Apple, they refused the FBI access to the iPhone of one of the shooters in San Bernardino. Other companies, such as Microsoft, rallied behind Apple. It's a powerful camp that decide to take such political and social actions. This type of action was also seen after the introduction of anti-gay laws in North Carolina, Salesforce and Paypal openly expressed their dissatisfaction and blocked the use of their services in North Carolina.

Will it be ok with privacy protection? Tellingly are the developments in WhatsApp. WhatsApp now encrypt all messages that you and I send. Only the sender and receiver can read the contents. It's not watertight security, but still, it shows that the technology sector are not prepared to allow intelligence services in.

The danger lies in us

Maybe we shouldn't fear the intelligence services. As long as Apple, WhatsApp and Microsoft sharpen up their protection our privacy won't be lying on the street. The biggest danger comes from ourselves. As consumers we are more than happy to give away our privacy for the sake of convenience. We fill in unbelievable numbers of Internet forms, with the most detailed of questions for the use of a handy online service.

Shruggingly we agree to terms of use on social media. Who was worried when WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook? Did you take the trouble to switch to another safer network?

As Dave Eggers predicted: through group pressure we connect ourselves in social networks. We cheapen the value of our privacy, we take it for granted. As long as you are alert it's fine, continue carefully in order to protect your privacy, there are many ways and methods you can undertake to increase your protection too.

In another blog I will be giving you 10 tips for your online privacy.