Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing. Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: PRIVACY.

“It comes down to how much you are happy to have people — and Facebook itself — know about you”, said Tim. “You don’t know whether what people disclose on their Facebook profile is factual personal information or false, information designed to mislead. Are they creating a fictional persona?”.

“Or is it false information designed to maintain their privacy? So you can’t really trust what you see about someone?”, replied Amber.

“No, not really. Though I think most Facebook users provide true information”, responded Tim. “But of course it’s partial information. There’s what you don’t see about them too. Their hidden side. Maybe deliberately hidden or maybe simply undisclosed. You know — does that nice, well-spoken, well-presented girl who is your Facebook friend secretly steal, cook and eat the little chihuahuas tht go missing from people along the street?”.

As usual, Amber had arrived on time. “There he is”, she thought as she spotted him sitting at one of the outside tables, pecking away at the screen of his mobile phone. Tim hadn’t seen her yet, as she emerged from the tunnel that is Town Hall Arcade.

“Yeah, still the same Tim. Still the same style. Blue jeans, a black Tshirt with the logo of some surfing apparel company on the front. Sneakers.” She noticed his aviator style sunglasses on the table and realised that his taste in sunnies, too, had not changed over the years. “Less hair than he had when I met him… what? 25 years ago maybe?”, she thought to herself.

It was a Friday afternoon when they had arranged to meet over coffee and a snack at their usual place, the little cafe tucked away on the lower portion of Town Hall Square. It was sheltered here and although there was a more or less constant flow of people going past, the cafe had a feel of seclusion from the elevated part that made up most of the Square. Three, maybe four times a year they met here. That was when Amber was in the city.

Coffees and food ordered, they did what they usually did when they met up, which was, first, to catch up on what each other were had done since their last meeting and then to talk about mutual friends and acquaintances. Sure, they exchanged occasional emails but it was these in-person get-togethers that formed the glue that had maintained their friendship over the years.

Facebook had come up whan Amber told Tim about a conversation she had overheard on the train where two teenage girls had been discussing a friend’s not-so-private private life disclosed on her Facebook page. Tim had said that he had written an article about Facebook and privacy for the online news and current affairs website he was a guest-writer for, and how it had generated a long list of comments, most critical of Facebook’s privacy policy.

Two steaming cuppuccinos arrived, followed by a plate of snacks. They sat back in silence for a moment, sipping at their coffees. As Amber watched a group of kids in school uniform make their noisy way to the entrance of the arcade, Tim briefly reflected on their friendship and how Amber, unlike him, had found a place to settle and a good partner. That was up on the Mid North Coast in a small town with a fine surfing beach where the rollers powered in from the Pacific. Her partner worked in the big town nearby, driving the thirty kilometre return trip four days a week. She worked from home though, like her partner, that was a deliberately reduced short week of three days. The couple had long ago realised that their time was more valuable than the money they earned, especially now that they owned ther own small house.

Had circumsatnces been different, Tim knew Amber would have made a good partner for him. Their relationship, though, was that of close friends, a relationship built up over the years with no expectation by either that it could ever be anything more. She was in her late forties, Tim knew, but she looked easily a decade younger. Look closely and you would see the lines in the corner of her eyes, he knew. Still slim, still with that slow speech and sense of humour, he silently noted how her casual clothing style matched casual personal style.

“It’s all Eric Snowden’s fault”, said Tim as Amber placed the cup on the saucer. “And Wikileaks”.

“Huh?”, responded Amber.

“Privacy. Or lack of it. Eric Snowdon, who revealed how the NSA was spying on ordinary Americans by scooping up their communications records”.

“It was a fishing expedition”, Amber said. “Seeing if there was anything they could find out. Ever since the terrorism fear that started to grip the world 17 years ago intelligence agencies all over the place have been in empire building mode as governments have thrown money at them. Snowdon simply revealed what one of them was up to”.

“And that’s where public confidence in government started to break down”, said Tim. “While some didn’t care if nefarious government agencies spied on their private communciations, the more astute among them realised that some boundary had been crossed, some bond with government broken, and that you really couldn’t trust governments of any kind.

“That’s born out by legislation adopted by the UK government last year enabling wholesale government spying on the people by their intelligence agency. Scooping up massive amounts of private communciations data again. The British have relinquished any right to privacy”.

“Yeah. I do wonder about the British. Snowdon’s revelation eventually brought changes to what the NSA does because many Americans, a good many, care about privacy and where the boundary between bona fide government tracking and unnecessary tracking lies. But the British just seemed not to care what their government is doing to them. Maybe that… is it a trust in government?… is why George Orwell could write 1984 in the UK and why it didn’t come out of America. Are the British all naive wimps when it comes to government?”, asked Amber.

“Back in the days of the Cold War”, said Tim, “Western nations would claim they were better than the Soviet Union and the Soviet client-states in Eastern Europe because they didn’t watch their people like that lot did. Now, we see, thanks to Snowdon and Wikileaks, that Western nations as well as the post-Soviet countries spy on their own people far more than the Soviets and East Germans and others ever did”.

“Because the collapse of the Soviet Union took away the only global ideological competition the West had”. Amber explained. “The West had to behave itself so as to position itself as better than the Soviets. Well, we know thanks to history that they didn’t do this, but it was the peception that they dealt in — why trust countries that spy on their people? That was the catchcry”.

“Business is really no better, like Facebook that you mention”, she went on. “Corporations spy on people by collecting information about the websites they visit and what they click on. All to blast advertising at them. Yet, look what’s happened. Their systems are hacked, like Target’s in the US was a few years ago, and people’s personal information stolen. That’s happened lots of times and sometimes corporations don’t disclose it, they keep it secret from the people whose information has been ripped off.”

“Happens to government websites too”, said Tim. I recall a few cases over recent years though I don’t remember the dates or which departments were hacked. Slack government IT security just adds to the growing distrust people have.”

“Well, now we have Apple and Google encrypting information transmitted over the internet. And look what happened, Apple refused to comply with the FBI’s demand they hack that terrorist’s phone and that set the FBI off the deep end. They had to get the Isrealis to try to break the encryption,” said Amber.

“And now because of incidents like that, now we have services like Proton secure main, based in Switzerland and protected by their strong privacy laws. They use two-factor authentication to decrypt your email so only you and the sender can read it. All this government intrusion into citizens’ private communications and corporate ineptitide with data security is creating a new industry based around secure communication”, Tim said.

“It’s like natural systems, and kind of system really”, Amber added. “Make a change somewhere in the system and you change it elsewhere… you create opportunities that astute people and organisations can step into if they’re fast enough… and, as happens with communciations security, you create new niches like those secure communciations channels you talk about with that email company and Apple and Google’s encryption.”

Tim helped himself to the last of the food, then sat back as their conversation took a brief break. Such breaks, short silences when the gaze drifts off the other person to take in the surroundings, were not the uncomfortable sort you get when people are unfamiliar with each other. They were those that occur among people who have known each other for some time. Pauses in conversation between friends. Comfortable breaks.

“You know”, Amber chimed in as she turned her gaze back to Tim to see him draining the last of the coffee from his cup, “this Donald Trump character is going to end net neutrality which will mean unscrupulous and greedy internet service providers will be able to throttle the flow of information from companies that don’t pay them to prioritise their programs. It’s really corporate blackmail. That means slow internet for people who access those programs. Obama legislated net neutrality but that’s going to go now. How so you think this will pan out?”.

“Well”, replied Tim. “It’s like your analogy earlier with ecosystems. Ending net neutrality will damage the open internet that we have enjoyed these past couple decades, but I think that will stimulate the development of a new niche, perhaps new service providers who do not slow traffic. Doing that, if it happens, will make people flood to them and may crash the greedy internet service providers, as they would deserve. Every change corporations and governments bring in to how they deal with the flow and security of information creates a new opportunity to hack the system.”

“Yeah. These misanthropic sociopaths, those politicians and companies, are running the internet into the ground, their actions are destroying it”, said Amber.

“The science fiction writer… what’s his name?… David Brin, yeah. He proposes that because snooping won’t be going away a better solution is mutual surviellence, that while government spies on its own people, people spy on the government to make it open and accountable. He says this should be legislated and a system set up. Mutual surviellence would end fear and reduce, but not end, the pervasive distrust of government we find all over the place. While we might not have the privacy we once had, neither would governments”.

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