Are cookies too intrusive? Are vendors justified in tracking us? Will we care in 10 years?

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There is a stark difference between the degree of monitoring that inhabitants of the United Kingdom experience versus the amount of camera-time and surveillance that is applied to American citizens. Part of this is because European assumptions about privacy have evolved on a very different track for the last couple of centuries — ideals and observations about the likelihood of abuses in oversight are legitimate; but compromises have been made by both societies based on how perceived gains are sold and accepted. For instance, if crime is measurably decreased or criminals are measurably convicted in greater numbers, many people are willing to give up a little privacy when they are in a space that is already portrayed as ‘public’.

Americans, though, for a long time have struggled with a very different concept of what ‘public’ means. In Europe, it may mean, ‘belonging to everyone’; but in the United States, if often means, ‘belonging to no one’. The assumption that no one has a legitimate right (or need) to monitor our activities is bred into us from the ideals that set us apart from the UK those two centuries ago — that individual existence is several orders of magnitude more relevant to our comfort and self-value than our need to belong. And that’s of note specifically because of our very strong need to feel like we belong.

Beginning with this difference of perspective, and the fact that much of internet-enhanced culture is rooted in technology and social constructs that began in America, and it is easy to grasp the ideal that individual freedom, self-regulation, and an assumption of privacy just through anonymity alone is the assumed norm across much of the internet — regardless of geographic, civil and social boundaries.

The problem is that tracking of every activity, every route, every identity on the internet is already happening because it’s completely necessary for traffic to move. It’s just that most users have not been sophisticated enough to grasp that all this addressing and routing is occurring; all they know is that they saw the web page they searched for, and they received the email their mom sent.

People are becoming increasingly aware, faster than the degree of collection is increasing. It’s the expansion of technological literacy that is the catalyst for stark concern about privacy issues.

Regardless of what decisions are made about what is acceptable for vendors, publishers, and ISPs, the literacy of its citizen will always increase. The amount of information collected about the traffic, and its travelers, will eventually be something users can regulate as individual endpoints. The shock of discovering we’re under surveillance will eventually be dismissed by the public, just as we no longer flinch when someone pulls out a camera phone in a public space.

Meanwhile, vendors can take a market-driven approach to gauging what is appropriate. They will gamble just as vendors in the physical world do — “What will the buying public do… how will they react… will they still spend time and money, or will they boycott?” These are struggles that crowdsourced experimentation will be much more well-suited to deal with than regulation.

For a best-case perception by the public, the public relations task of making users informed will be what reduces fear and ignorance. Fifteen years from now, it will be normal for young school children to understand how packets are created, sent, routed, received, and processed. They will read in history books how we had adult humans, wandering about, not grasping at all how information is collected or is moved, and they will wonder how we managed.

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