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My father bought the house’s first computer in 1995. Before then, I had used a rickety old typewriter with a flying ‘g’ that seemed to eat the ink cartridges faster than I could replace them. Happy with my father’s new purchase, I set to work on writing a novel. We had AOL in those days, but the Internet was not anywhere near where it is today. On the first day I started using the Internet, my father sat down with me and gave me a good piece of advice that I have never forgotten. “The Internet is a public place,” he told me. “I don’t care what website says it’s private. Automatically assume that everything you write, buy, and look at online will still be visible twenty years from now.”
That advice came in handy years later when I lost an entire manuscript I had saved since I was sixteen. Remembering that I had shared the file with some friends in order to gain some feedback, I was quickly able to find and download it. The date? May, 1997, just weeks before I graduated high school.
I had heard about Ashley Madison, the affair website, back in about 2003, and it became a sort of running joke between my friends and I, who were single, very geeky, and computer nerds. We joked about setting up fake profiles to see if anyone would be interested in a couple of twentysomethings that had yet to get their rocks off, but in actuality I think we were all a bit surprised that the Internet had suddenly become this gateway, this way of being able to hide your true identity or persona. One anonymous individual posted an article about his affair through Ashley Madison, and was extremely unapologetic about it. Of course, he posted it under the name anonymous, which tells us all something.
While many of us fight for deeper encryption and increased security, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security desire very much for applications and programs to have a “back door” that allows them to monitor computers and users, all under the guise of cracking down on domestic terrorism. As a writer, I have to wonder how my Internet searches are taken: I am working on two novels right now, one that takes place a few miles north of my house, and one that focuses on an uprising and an eventual revolution overtaking the United States. When all else fails, I go to the library or Barnes & Noble for military information, especially that of a sensitive nature.
People often argue that they have nothing to hide, so they do not worry about Internet privacy. However, that is like saying that the First Amendment doesn’t mean anything to you because you don’t have anything to say. A silent majority is always trumped by a vocal minority. The trouble is, today so many people aren’t aware of, or don’t care about, the idea of privacy: It has become one of those long-lost concepts. We have entered a stage where the up-and-coming generation cannot recall an age when they did not have technology, and they did not experience the uneasy peaceful times before September 11th, 2001. Often, teenagers will say they are simply playing video games, and as a result they really aren’t doing anything that warrants scrutiny.
I’m not concerned about Internet privacy because I’m doing something wrong. It is the fear of doing something wrong that concerns me. When we do not search on the Internet for information about military terms, conspiracy theories, or even our favorite United States warship out of concern that the FBI or some other entity is watching us, freedom has failed and tyranny has taken over.
The erosion of our freedoms has been slow and calls to mind the metaphor of a frog, placed in water that’s slowly boiling, failing to realize it is being cooked to death. We are in danger of having our voices silenced not through the banning of free speech, but through the fear of what might happen if we exercise it. This is, of course, coupled with intense stigmatizing as politically incorrect of anyone who says anything against the prevailing views, but that is another discussion for another day.
The Internet has solved many problems. We are able to find information that once would have sent us scrambling to the dictionary or to the library. My doctoral dissertation took six weeks of research, as opposed to six months for my masters’ thesis. However, it has also created problems. The ease with which we can post information on the Internet also makes it easier for us to be monitored.
The fate of a future United States President will depend on a Tweet or Facebook post that he or she made as a teenager.