This essay by Eric D. Wanger was originally published in a newsletter for the financial clients of the multifamily office he ran in Chicago.
Sept. 30, 2007
It seems like eons since Scott McNeely, former CEO of Sun Microsystems, irresponsibly quipped, “You have zero privacy … get over it.” McNeely was referring to specific technology and its role in the overall privacy debate, not the information gathering, monitoring and sharing technologies we now bring into every room of our homes.
Big Brother would never have the budget or the resources to spy on all of us as effectively as we do ourselves. Baby monitors and portable phones broadcast our intimate moments as effectively as any “bug.” Software records our internet habits and Tivo knows what we watch on TV. Don’t even ask about the “nanny cam” we hid in the living room.
Not only do we bug our own homes in order to spy on ourselves, but then we make it all available via the world’s largest public library. Google is not merely a library of what is on the internet, but also a library of what was on the internet. Google “caches” what it finds, storing and archiving information long after the original source material may have been removed from the internet. Remember that our blogs, web sites, chats and face books might be available online for a very, very long time. Think about that next time someone posts a picture of you doing vodka body shots in the French Quarter. “One’s past is always present” because “Google never forgets” we read in the popular press.
Job-seeking college students and college-bound high schoolers are already knowledgeable about these issues. These folks are likely to be aware of the trail they may leave on the internet if they post to blogs, social networks or other public web sites. And while many post, blog and wiki with an adolescent level of sophistication, a growing number understand that a foul-mouthed blog will be available for admission counselors, human resource departments and recruiters to read, in practical terms, forever.
The rich and powerful are getting the message too: Millions of readers snickered with schadenfreude after learning the impressive details of Merrill Lynch CEO Stan O’Neal’s golf schedule. O’Neal fiddled while Merrill burned, or at least lost billions and billions of dollars. There is an old joke that goes: “A liberal is a conservative that’s been arrested.” Maybe a libertarian is a conservative who’s had his golf schedule posted on the Net.
Professor Lawrence M. Friedman of Stanford has just published a book titled: Guarding Life’s Dark Secrets: Legal and Social Controls over Reputation, Propriety, and Privacy. It’s an engaging read which grapples with these issues head on. Interestingly, Friedman makes it clear that only the technology, not the issue of protecting reputation, is at all new.
Today’s cameras are no longer “candid”; they proudly monitor our elevators, building lobbies, living rooms and a surprising number of boudoirs. We put cameras in our own streets and alleyways to keep an eye on ourselves.
The internet also has dark alleys, and it is wise to fear the credit card fraudsters, chat room sex offenders, identify thieves, spy warriors, and phishermen trying to prey on us from the virtual darkness. But it is equally important to think about the grassroots conspiracy we have developed to spy on ourselves. Microsoft does not take cell-phone cameras into our boudoirs. We do that to ourselves.
How can our society balance the productivity and convenience of the internet with new dangers in creates? That is the kind of thing we discuss at the Long Term Opportunity Fund. We have invested in anti-fraud technology through CyberSource Corporation (NASDAQ: CYBS), anti-theft protection through Ituran Location and Control (Nasdaq: ITRN) and secure financial networks through TNS (NYSE: TNS). All three of these investments represent long-term opportunities to invest with those that protect us.