A few weeks ago I have received a call from London.
The person on the other side had a thick Russian accent and politely told me they finally had the information I had requested for an investment. I disclaimed I haven't signed up for anything. "You have subscribed via the online form of one of our affiliated partners. Are you sure you haven't subscribed?". Of course, I wasn't sure. Who would ever be sure of that? I was certain I was being scammed, and I was certain I have not been remotely interested in any online investment. But I was significantly in doubt whether they were performing something illegal or not.
Can I have your number?
The point is: we, the internet users, are chronically lacking a much necessary sense of security concerning the privacy of our personal data. This is not about our private messages or our personal photos saved on our phones. Much simpler things, like our names and phone number, circulate the web in databases acquire legally and illegally. This is not new, exactly. What is new is the fact we are unable to tell when these operations are performed legally and when they are not.
The internet is such a volatile environment where we fill in forms all the time with our major social network or email accounts. We are then invited to verify sign-ins or validate new subscriptions with phone numbers. And of course, we need to tick the box for accepting terms and conditions. All this makes it quite difficult to differentiate who ends up having access to this data.
In a way, the less private and less critical the data is, the less secure we feel about them — the less we are sure someone else does not have access to it. I may be quite confident nobody else has access to the photos on my cellphone, but I am not sure which companies out there know both my name and phone number. The less tech-savvy, the less trusting — are we all entirely sure that social media is not listening, webcams not spying on us and the wi-fi we have used when in a cafe is not funnelling information out? It's quite hard to be entirely sure, today.
There are two curious aspects to this situation, which is a quite known situation: first, we get used to the discomfort of this uncertainty. We can live with it. And second, we don't even know which part of this unaware sharing of our information is legal and which is not.
We got used to it
I can live with the fact that some company in London called me and a Russian dude started asking me about investments. I will not call the police or start a hunt for the scammer. It's just part of daily life. But worse than that, I am not sure which companies have the right to own my name and phone number, or which companies have the right to share them with other companies, and which companies are able to freely access, contact me and share my data illegally.
From mistrust to paranoia
The feeling that creeps in, thus, is mistrust. The public eye has always been aware that corporations may screw up. But the paradigm seems to be shifting from trust, but verify to one of strong mistrust. For all that matters, it was easier to trust Unilever than to trust Facebook. And it certainly feels easier to prove Unilever did something against the law than Facebook — simply because maybe the law is enough lenient to allow companies a behaviour that is at one time untrustworthy, legal and extremely confusing for users.
I would think this paradigm — one where the biggest companies in the world cannot be enough trusted by the public — serves as an extremely fertile ground for paranoia. It sounds obvious, doesn't it? When suspicion is a chronic condition, it turns into an unnatural, pathological condition. A state of paranoia, hysteria and all sorts of messianic, cult-like culture seeing enemies everywhere. When one is able to organize, mobilize and provoke these people in communities, the creative power and decentralised actions of all these followers tend to spin out of control. And that explains a lot.