Lost in Cyberspace

To many young people, the Web increasingly seems like a good-natured auditorium filled with people just like themselves wanting to be amused. People write, share and network on social media sites with a candour which in some cases is nothing short of appalling. The information they post is mined, filtered and archived ostensibly to make search engine algorithms smarter. Software uses fuzzily nice, inoffensive language – people are invited to ‘connect’ with ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ – where’s the harm?  The older people get, however, the more concerned they are about protecting their online privacy. There is direct correlation between users’ ages and their willingness to use PayPal, for example, supposing that a sweaty little adolescent dwarf in a back bedroom somewhere is busily siphoning their money into an offshore bank account. But, what about all the data that you thought was private, but actually isn’t? 

The media has been in overflow about the Edward Snowden affair which has raised all kinds of nasty speculation about what information is actually recorded, sifted, analysed and archived by governments and their shadowy apocalyptic horsemen whose motivation, allegedly, is to uncover terrorist activity, but the reality is, finding out everything about everybody might just be quite useful one day. Everyone is asking whether he is some kind of Assange clone – a hero for opening what looks to be a particularly gnarly can of worms, or a treasonous hound who has, in some as yet unspecified fashion, made some of his country’s best-kept secret methods available to a foreign and generally not very benevolent power. As the story unfolds, it seems more probable that the latter will turn out to be closer to the truth. Speculation is feverish as to why he abandoned – or fled – his Hawaii apartment, citing a need for medical treatment abroad, then surfacing in Hong Kong – go figure – his data would be a gold mine to Chinese intelligence services and the Chinese are one of the few people on the planet prepared to stand up to the Americans. The Americans are looking increasingly desperate to get their hands on him and the country hopping he has already done suggests that it has been carefully orchestrated by people with considerably more political savvy than he has. Today, he is pathetically marooned, shuffling around inside the transit zone at Sheremetyevo airport and considering at least three asylum options. In theory, he could stay there for years and where he ends up is anyone’s guess, but I can’t help wondering if some tragic accident might befall him en route. His condition is a metaphor for his own actions – he is as lost in real space as his data is in cyberspace.

Among other consequences of this rather grubby little story, we might like to bear in mind that Snowden’s revelations will clarify something that we do seem to have trouble grasping: the Internet is not just a playground where we can exercise our freedoms as we wish and be friendly with everybody.