Imagine you live in a world where the buildings are glass and you can’t ever close the curtains. Imagine the floor is glass, the ceiling is glass and all the walls are glass. There are no curtains, no window shades, no shutters and you can’t make your own. We’re heading into this world online. A robust network, cheap sensors and massive data manipulation builds the equivalent of glass houses.
The question today is whether we can have curtains. Whether any business or ecosystem provides curtains and whether we can make our own. Today we have very little ability to close the curtains in commercial activities. Websites are technically able to track *everything* we do, from how long we stay on a page to what ads attract us to how to travel from one website to the next. The data about you can be sold to others. Online data can be combined with data from your physical world and made available or sold to others Telephone providers know when we make a phone call, where we made it from, who we called, how long we talked, our regular patterns of calls, and more.
Now we know that the U.S. government is gathering significant quantities of this data. Currently it’s understood to be using only “metadata” about phone calls for U.S. citizens, and to be using the actual content as well for foreign nationals. Now we also know that the inability to pull the curtains applies to governments as well. We can also wonder how many other governments are collecting these types of data.
Now is the moment to ask — do we care? Do care how much our government watches us, tracks us without our knowing it? Do we care how the U.S. government treats the citizens of friendly, allied states? Do we care if other governments emulate the U.S. and gather this data? How do businesses, organizations and individuals approach the US knowing the scope of online activities that are being monitored? How much do other governments do this — either to citizens or to foreign nationals?
How do we balance between civil rights and national security?
At Mozilla we have a long, deep focus on individual control of online life, including the degree of privacy a person wants. We build products to promote this goal, and we will continue to do so. In essence, we try to provide the option of pulling the curtains for individual citizens.
However, products do not make government policies. This is the role of citizens. We urge all citizens to get involved with the issue of wholesale government surveillance. It will determine the realities of online life going forward. Our online houses are become increasingly built of glass. Our lives our increasingly visible to whomever wants to look.
Let’s ask ourselves: do we want to live in a house or a fishbowl?