Hasan Elahi says the government is after him. For almost a decade, he’s been a terror suspect, without ever being charged with a crime. The Bangladeshi-born Rutgers professor documents every single moment of his life. He photographs the bed he slept in. He photographs his breakfast. He photographs the commode. Every single transaction he makes is recorded, every step tracked by GPS. It all gets sent to his website, part art project, part surveillance record. At TrackingTransience.net, every piece of Elahi’s life from what he buys to what he drinks and eats is preserved, all so FBI agents don’t pull him off a flight again.
In an article that appeared in The New York Times in 2011 entitled “Giving the FBI What It Wants,” Elahi explains his actions:
“In an era in which everything is archived and tracked, the best way to maintain privacy may be to give it up. Information agencies operate in an industry that values data. Restricted access to information is what makes it valuable. If I cut out the middleman and flood the market with my information, the intelligence the FBI has on me will be of no value. Making my private information public devalues the currency of the information the intelligence gatherers have collected.”
And indeed, this is an era where all things are archived and tracked. An individual may give up personal data to a search engine, social media site or some GPS-enabled smartphone before they even have breakfast. In this information age, the notion of what privacy is needs to change.
Peculiarly, Elahi’s case shows that a total lack of privacy—a complete and unabashed sharing—can guarantee privacy. In the information age, an individual suddenly has unlimited potential to wield large amounts of their own personal data for the first time. Elahi has honed his data into a sword, using it to hold his potential captors at arm’s length. Protecting personal data becomes important for a different reason then; not because it’s valuable in and of itself, but rather because it can be leveraged and exploited to achieve a goal.
Likewise, protestors opposed to the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, or CISPA, are employing this “flood the market” tactic. An organizer explains in a blog post titled “CongressTMI campaign: Give Congress Too Much Information and tell them how crazynuts CISPA is,” which appeared on BoingBoing.net: “The CongressTMI campaign organizes Internet users to flood CISPA sponsors’ Twitter accounts with our uninteresting and useless personal data—the kind of information that the government will have access to if CISPA passes.” Those who killed SOPA and PIPA return again now, with a brand new method. By providing copious amounts of superfluous personal information, the opposition use personal data for a political purpose. Autobiographical information like, “I watched Netflix with someone else’s account today,” becomes political speech.
Personal data can be endlessly repurposed when it is freely shared. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, stated in a recent interview with The Guardian that users should demand their data from sites like Facebook and Google. He said, “My computer has a great understanding of my state of fitness, of the things I’m eating, of the places I’m at. My phone understands from being in my pocket how much exercise I’ve been getting and how many stairs I’ve been walking up and so on.” His hope is that by liberating personal data from search engines and social networks, individuals can harness it to improve their lives and provide useful services. If different data streams could be liberated and brought back to their source, the individual, that person could make better choices about their fitness, their finances and so on. After all, that data belonged to and was generated by him or her in the first place.
Personal data isn’t necessarily something to be stored under lock and key. It has the potential to guarantee safety, to effect political change and to unlock individual potential. It used to be that privacy meant the right to be left alone. But in a world that insists on imposing this much on the individual, perhaps it is time to leverage one’s worth.