Amid the recent drama in Congress over government surveillance and phone data, a larger point has gone missing: Regardless of what happens in Washington, Americans' privacy is rapidly disappearing — and they are complicit in its demise.
The rise of social media, smart phones and proliferation of surveillance technology like traffic cameras means Americans are producing more data every day that can be (and is being) collected, stored and analyzed by a long list of entities.
Data from the Pew Research Center shows the percentage of online adults who use social media has climbed from 8 percent in 2005 to 74 percent in 2014. When you take into account the growth in population and the growth in internet use that is a climb from about 12.2 million American adults in 2005 to 212.5 million in 2014.
That’s 200 million more people posting status updates and photos and news articles in about a decade. Those are all bits of data revealing who they are, where they are, what they think, where they live, eat and drink all floating out in the ether to be collected – or at least remain sitting with a social media company somewhere.
When people post their social media updates, increasingly they are doing it on a smartphone. The number of smartphones has exploded. In 2011, 35 percent of American adults had smartphone, according to Pew Research data. That number is now 64 percent.
That is 156 million Americans downloading apps that can collect data on users and using maps that can track and show where they go and where they live.
The net result is ultimately a lot more data about you in the hands of others. The MIT Technology review estimated in 2013 that the average American office worker produces 1.8 million megabytes of data each year. And some of that data is collected by firms that study and analyze “big data” – a $40 billion industry, according to some estimates – and label, identify and characterize you.
The point, to be clear, is that beyond the U.S. government there is a lot of interest in the data you produce. That data is mostly secure most of the time, but it is still subject to the abuse and misuse by hackers or mischief-makers that work inside of those companies.
And even if you try to limit your digital footprint, your privacy has shrunken in other ways. Vizzion, a traffic camera based in British Columbia, Canada, estimates that the number of traffic cameras doubles every two-and-a-half years.
Washington D.C. alone has about 250 traffic cameras in use around the city. New York City has around 1,000. Those cameras do everything from monitoring traffic to issuing tickets and people walk, run and drive through their viewfinders every day. Any person can click through the New York City cameras and monitor traffic (or people) on their own if they choose.
That doesn’t even take into account security cameras mounted across public places and in private establishments across the country.
And there are many more examples, of course, from what you watch on your cable provider to the websites you click on your browser. All that data is sitting with other people and organizations out of your hands and there is more of it every day.
None of this is to say that the Washington debate over phone records (and who holds them) doesn’t matter. Many are concerned about the government’s control over personal information.
But in some ways the debate misses the larger point. On the issue is privacy in a larger sense, the debate has moved on. In 21st century America, personal privacy is increasingly the exception, not the rule – because of choices you and others have made.