Imagine a time when the government knew nothing about the money in your bank. It cared nothing about how much you made, where you made it, and what you did with it. You could take your earnings in gold, silver, paper, or anything else, and never filed a sheet with the government.
How you earned a living was none of the business of the political class. For that matter, your bank account could be under a false name and absolutely no one cared.
This was the world of a mere 100 years ago in the United States. That’s why it was called the “land for the free.”
Back then, all federal revenue — tiny by today’s standards — came from a tax on imported goods. That tax did plenty of damage, as all taxes do. However, the system was superior because it took only a tiny share of private wealth and, most importantly, it had no privacy implications for average citizens.
The reason for the dramatic change is rather simple. Now we have an income tax. The government determines how you are paid and what you can do with your money, and spends vast resources tracking it all. The government wants its share. Therefore you have no right to earn money without coughing up.
The intrusion into our bank accounts was only the beginning. Over the course of 100 year, everything changed. The government can spy on our emails and cellphone calls, confiscate homes and cars with no legal proceedings, and even send drones over our houses and kill us legally. We are wholly owned. It is a world that no one living in late 19th century America could possibly recognize.
This situation has many people extremely alarmed and very confused. Surely there are ways that we can protect our privacy. Surely there are ways to guard our freedoms from these intrusions. To that end, people who do not entirely understand digital technology will often react in ways that are counterproductive. They decide to stay away from all social media altogether. They don’t get a Facebook account, they don’t Tweet, they don’t do LinkedIn, and some people won’t even use a credit card online.
These same people rail against private business in the digital age for collecting data on us. They won’t use shoppers’ cards at grocery stores. They denounce Amazon for tracking purchases. They freak out when Gmail feeds them ads based on subjects covered in the body of emails. They imagine that these are all symptoms of an age when privacy has been vanquished by the regime.
I can understand this reaction, but here’s the truth of the matter. All of these behaviors are the digital equivalent of digging a big hole in the ground and jumping in it. This will not protect you against intrusions by the state. In fact, this approach to protecting yourself can even have the opposite effect of making you more vulnerable than ever.
There is a world of difference between a government that is spying on your bank account and an online retailer that tracks your buying habits in hopes of selling you more things you like. Government’s actions are a threat to your human rights. The actions of private enterprise are ultimately designed to serve you better.
I take what seems to be a counterintuitive view of how to protect yourself in an age of ubiquitous government snooping. The solution is not to hide but exactly the opposite: become a public person. Embrace social media. Do not fear having your name online. In fact, the more of a known entity in the digital world you are, the more protection you actually enjoy and the more likely you are to have advocates should you find yourself mixed up with the police state.
There will come a time when this network can save your life. You end up without a job and need that LinkedIn network right away. You might find yourself hauled off to jail and only have a few minutes to post that Tweet or status update. You can find yourself trapped in a high-crime area and need help; this is when that Foursquare update can mean life or death.
On the other hand, obscurity is something the government loves. If you get caught up in the criminal justice system, there is no network out there to cheer for you, rally on your behalf, and provide you legal help. If the arrest or the problem you face, makes the papers, there is no public profile to check against the government’s claims.
It was very intriguing that after the Sandy Hook massacre, the killer’s own internet obscurity actually worked to convict him. People these days figure that a person who is in digital hiding is a highly suspicious person who has probably done something wrong. This is just about the worst way to begin an entanglement with the government.
On the other hand, you can use social media as a way of shaping your professional and social personality to your own benefit. It is a way of taking control. And as for the tracking cookies that commercial sites are dropping on your browser, this is a complete distraction from the real problem. Amazon and Google don’t want to send drones to your house. They want to engage in the completely non-threatening behavior of trying to sell you stuff. There is nothing about this desire that represents a threat to your well being.
To be sure, it takes some degree of sophistication to use the internet in a way that that helps rather than hurts your professional reputation and life prospects. Generally, the rule applies always and everything: do not post anything anyway that you do not mind the whole world reading now and forever. That same is true for email. There is probably no venue of communication less secure than email.
In the early years of the Internet, I thought that the public demand for privacy would doom attempts to create public social networks. No one wants their every thought and their whereabouts broadcasted to the world. On the score, I was completely wrong. In fact, the opposite is true. Vast numbers of people are gluttons for attention wherever they can get it. This is particularly true of young people who are acculturated to living public lives from an early age.
Some people have a difficult time understanding this crucial fact. For the most part, the seeming privacy intrusions that private internet companies engage in are entirely in keep with consumer wishes. Nor is this anything that most people need to worry about it. Private enterprise is not the threat. Government is the threat.
To be sure, private companies have proven themselves to be willing to cooperate with government agencies when they are asked to or forced to. This is truly awful. In the balance, however, staying away from digital media does not help maintain any freedoms or privacies. The better approach is to browse using the privacy settings on your browser. If you go to sketchy sites, use an IP scrambling device like Tor (which you can easily download).
The privacy problem is a government problem. It is a policy problem. So long as we have a government money monopoly and an income tax, our rights are being violated. The spying, the confiscations, and the drones are just the mop-up operation. It’s the politicians and bureaucrats, not the dot coms and the CEOs, who are the real enemy.
Jeffrey Tucker is the publisher and executive editor of Laissez-Faire Books, the Primus inter pares of the Laissez Faire Club, and the author of Bourbon for Breakfast: Living Outside the Statist Quo, It's a Jetsons World: Private Miracles and Public Crimes, and A Beautiful Anarchy: How to Build Your Own Civilization in the Digital Age, among thousands of articles. Click to sign up for his free daily letter. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org