There’s a scene in 2012 Academy Award winning film musical Les Miserables (based on the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo) where one of the main characters, Marius, laments about the death of his fellow revolutionaries during a siege against their barricade by the French Royalist government.
After being anonymously saved by Jean Val Jean, Marius wonders who was responsible for saving him during the siege that ultimately had rendered dead his friends. Unexpectedly, it is after Val Jean self-exiles himself to a countryside monastery; Marius discovers that his savior was Val Jean from an unexpected source. It is from there, he and his bride Cossette discover both his savior and her foster father dying, learn a bit of his shadowed past, and ultimately the film musical ends with Val Jean’s ascension to Heaven after he passes.
Anonymity and the obstruction of one’s identity play an important part of the Les Miserables story convincingly. The inspector hunts for the convict, the convict hides behind an alias, the inspector dons the coat of the revolutionary, and the saved discovers his savior.
Like the musical, throughout much of our history, our greatest spies and their tradecraft has relied on their ability to deceive and misdirect against would be antagonists. You can don a costume and rely on social stealth to vanish away.
However, with the advent of the Internet 2.0, in which our world is enveloped in a cloud computer which augments reality, your anonymity and privacy may be at stake. It is true that the internet which uses routers, proxies, and international server farms can mask your identity, but when the internet bleeds into the real world, your privacy will be out in the open as if you lived in a glass house.
Imagine a common thing everyone does – buying food: we go to the grocer, we choose what we want to eat, we show the cashier our loyalty card, we use our credit cards to pay the grocer, and we discover emails with deals tailored to our tastes.
And throughout every junction of this every day activity we are tracked. Using a data warehouse, a grocer can use with McNamara-like statistical precision what your demographic is and what items you are likely to buy and therefore they can forecast from this data what they believe they can market to you, discover what items or services sell well, and both yourself and the grocer can save money by surrendering a bit of your privacy. Of course, your credit card usage is also tracked by third party creditor data warehouses.
With social media networks, we are continuing the trend by surrendering and bleeding out our own information and we do so voluntarily. We pinpoint where we are, who we’re with, what we’re doing, what we like, what we hate, and reveal a treasure trove of demographic information that social networks use to profit off your bits of information (Google makes $35 Billion a year pushing targeted advertising to you, for example).
So how do we continue to live in a world in which we are constantly followed by invisible statisticians and internet hounds?
Personally, like everyone else, I love the internet. We conduct commerce with it, our friends and families use it to connect ourselves with each other, and we’re at the cusp of creating a more open society because of it. But I think as responsible, autonomous moral agents, we need to understand that in order to reap the internet’s benefits, we must surrender some of our own privacy.
What do you think about this new reality? Can we truly be anonymous in a world that trades on our social and private information? Are you okay with this trade off: do you benefit more or less from the internet 2.0?