Anonymity in the computer age

The more we lose our privacy to the prying eyes of the online world, the more we hear about how important individual privacy is.

Anyone who grew up in the 50s and 60s will remember watching “spy” movies and TV shows where the good guys (spies) always outwitted the bad guys using ultra high tech sleuthing equipment like tiny cameras embedded in pens and pendants and tape recorders (yes – reel to reels) disguised as cigar boxes. And recording “bugs” planted in the light fixtures.

Of course, those were the days of the Cold War with Russia and we knew who were the good and bad guys.

Fast forward several decades and those gains in stealth technology have been put into use here at home.

It used to be that putting someone under surveillance was a big thing that required a really good reason and a court order. Not anymore. With computers, it’s just so easy to intercept data – most of us obligingly put it “out there” without even thinking for the whole world to see. Emails, pictures, financial transactions, phone logs – it’s all there.

Public surveillance cameras in stores and public buildings are so common that we barely bat an eye at them anymore. Health records, office files, financial records are routinely outsourced.

We constantly struggle with privacy issues versus the right to know.

The District of Saanich went from the shadows to the spotlight this week when the Information and Privacy Commissioner slapped them on the wrist for secretly monitoring their employees, mostly through computer use. The commissioner said it violated the privacy rights of employees and elected officials and told them to destroy any data collected.

How much of the data collected on us is even used? There is so much of it that will never see the light of day. On the other hand, some of it can destroy a person’s life if it results in their name being placed erroneously on a list banned from travel, or wiping out a bank account, having contact with suspicious individuals or groups, etc.

Because with digital surveillance, punitive action is usually swift and anonymous. There’s no “facing your accuser” that we associate with living in a democracy.

It’s hard to be unknown these days.

Wendy Coomber is editor of the Ashcroft-Cache Creek Journal