It’s a troubling image, one that some fear might not be limited to works of fiction.
Consider this scene in “The Circle,” Dave Eggers’s new novel that imagines a dystopian future dominated by an omnipotent social networking company: Mae, the young protagonist, tries to unplug from her hypernetworked life to go on a covert, solitary kayaking trip. But when she returns to shore, she is greeted by police officers who have been alerted to her excursion by several hidden cameras. She quickly realizes that very little in her life isn’t recorded, tracked and analyzed.
It’s a troubling image, one that some fear might not be limited to works of fiction. In fact, some elements of Mae’s scenario have emerged recently in the news. There was the report that the National Security Agency can create sophisticated maps of some people’s personal information and social connections. There were the recent changes to Facebook’s privacy settings that will no longer allow users to hide their profiles from public searches. In addition, Google recently revealed that it was considering using anonymous identifiers to track browsing habits online, raising hackles among privacy advocates who have described it as “the new way they will identify you 24/7.”
And, at the same time, drones are becoming commonplace — used by the government in counterterrorism efforts and by hobbyists — prompting discussions about the long-term impact on privacy.
These developments, among others, have spurred the creation of a handful of applications and services intended to give people respite and refuge from surveillance, both online and off. They have a simple and common goal: to create ways for people to use the Internet and to communicate online without surveillance.
Nadim Kobeissi, a security adviser in Montreal who works on an encrypted-message service called Cryptocat, said the security and hacker circles of which he is a part have long suspected that the government is listening in on online conversations and exchanges but “have never been able to prove it.” He added: “It’s been a worst-case-scenario prediction that all turned out to be true, to a worrying extent.”
If nothing else, the N.S.A. leaks and disclosures have brought these issues front and center for many people, myself included, who are troubled by how much of our daily and online interaction is concentrated in and around a handful of companies that have funneled data to the N.S.A.
“It’s sad that this is the proverbial kick in the butt that needs to bring awareness to this concept,” said Harlo Holmes, who works for the Guardian Project, a group that is building several anti-surveillance and privacy applications.
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