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"How can we get people to care about this?"

The person asking this question was in the audience for a screening of CitizenFour that was held in Birmingham earlier this week (find a UK screening or read filmmaker Laura Poitras's interview with Democracy Now.)

It's a sadly legitimate question. Unlike the US itself, where the president commissioned and published a review, or Germany, which objected strenuously to having its leader surveilled, and the EU in general, which the revelations spurred to take data protection reform more seriously, Britain has done...not much. There's been no Parliamentary debate; only the Guardian has taken up the cause; and outside of civil society groups public protest was minimal.

When you ask people about this, the responses that come up most often are that "they" already know everything about us anyway or a shrugging- shoulders "I have nothing to hide". The former seems more an expression of powerlessness than of cynicism. The latter is absurd. Everyone has something they would rather everybody didn't know, whether it's the details of their finances, their daughter's abortion, or their shady past selling incense and love beads out of a garishly painted school bus back in 1968. Even David Blunkett, the politician who pushed hardest for a national identity card in the late 2000s on the basis that No one has anything to fear from being correctly identified (PDF), turned out to have a pretty big secret he didn't like seeing made public. A few years later, there was Blunkett, speaking in favor of privacy in the 2010 film Erasing David.

It seems to me that people care about privacy in specific but inconsistent ways. On social media they post pictures of their kids but not their bank statements. They object strenuously to unwanted ads arriving in their email and SMS inboxes, telesales calls, and what a friend calls "God botherers" ringing their doorbells. Many would still balk at being required to carry identification. Yet somehow, the mass deployment of CCTV cameras throughout the UK has been met with complacency or even enthusiasm, even in schools. Yes, as a result of a range of US policies from fingerprinting foreigners at the border to the PATRIOT Act, some people refuse to travel to the US, but I suspect that for the general public the rising cost of air fares is a bigger issue.

A friend claims that the thing that typically really sparks a public response in Britain is a tragedy involving a teenaged girl. There seems to be some legitimacy to this idea: Milly Dowler certainly focused public attention on the media and phone hacking; suicides by young, female Ask.fm users spurred public concern about cyber bullying. Lacking such a poster child who has been deeply and specifically damaged by NSA/GCHQ surveillance and being oddly unwilling to deliberately create one...then what?

The most obvious deterrent historical example, the Third Reich, has, with time, lost a lot of its power. There are plenty of people in the US and Europe who no longer believe that such horrors are a realistic contemporary likelihood. This was another question raised in Birmingham: what kind of dystopia could we be heading towards? I passed over Orwell in favor of the less well-known This Perfect Day by Rosemary's Baby author Ira Levin. This book's events take place in a permission-based society in which everyone must place a bracelet to a scanner and wait for it to wink green whenever they want to do anything; I think of it often when I tap my Oyster card. Behind the scenes, an elite group of programmers run everything, including remote islands where malcontents are safely segregated from the compliant masses. The questioner thought more likely something like Dave Eggers' recent novel, The Circle. In that book, the constantly monitored characters learn to see privacy as theft and a near-lone holdout commits suicide to escape the drones following him. Either way, both books have their elites and therefore resonate with recent revelations that in God Mode Uber employees (and NSA operatives) have browsed their organization's databases for, more or less, fun.

Such revelations tend, however, to damage only the services themselves: people cancel their Uber accounts or decide to avoid the US without necessarily taking on board any larger principle about data collection and protesting changing laws and norms. Near the end of CitizenFour, Jacob Appelbaum comments that "What we used to call liberty and freedom we now call privacy...and now people are saying that privacy is dead." Most people do not see that connection. What they see - and one can hardly blame them for this - is the service, discount, or travel destination they want and that is being marketed to them. Giving up data to get those seems a small, painless thing. If "they" know everything about us, it's because we've colluded in making it easy for "them".

My best guess is that the first step is to give people effective alternatives. Only then can we tell if people really do care about privacy.


Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

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