Paul W. Smith
The Hidden History of Big Brother in America by Thom Hartmann: A Review
Companies like Facebook-Meta and Google are under increasing scrutiny as we have come to realize that our personal information and browsing habits are the highly profitable product that they are selling. In his book “The Hidden History of Big Brother in America”, radio host and best-selling author Thom Hartmann shows us how the consequences of Big Data are far more extensive than we imagined. His thought-provoking expose details the history of “privacy” and the endgame for Government and Big Business, highlighting the urgency of guarding our information.
After a compelling introduction, this short 4-part book moves through the evolution of the meaning of privacy, the use of personal information for social control, the emergence of so-called surveillance capitalism and the unsettling rise and implications of global cyberwar. Somehow the final section – a call to arms to fight the nefarious uses of private information by Big Tech and Governments – seemed a bit impotent compared to the threats that face us.
Our assumed right to privacy is not explicitly guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution; while the Fourth Amendment assures personal freedom and protects against unreasonable searches, it never uses the word “privacy.” At the time of the Founding Fathers, privacy had a completely different meaning, referring to things done in secret. Asking for privacy in those days meant that you needed to use the toilet, hence the name “privies.” We’ve come a long way, both in plumbing and in personal rights.
Social control is generally the goal of privacy violations, which have been used in various forms from Puritan New England, through the US period of slavery, and into modern times to alter behavior. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote a 1928 opinion mentioning “the right to be let alone” which rocked the legal establishment and ignited generations of debate over an individual’s right to privacy. Nearly four decades later, Justice William O. Douglas affirmed this right, citing the Ninth Amendment which says that just because some rights are specifically detailed in the Constitution doesn’t mean others are automatically excluded. The ensuing series of laws created some protections on wiretapping, financial records and other forms of personal information held by the Federal Government. When Edward Snowden revealed the use of secret, illegal court orders to pry information from ISP’s and phone companies, Congress responded with the 2015 USA Freedom Act which banned this type of bulk information gathering.
Now that the Internet of Things is a thing, many of us are embracing the idea of a smart house where conveniences abound. In exchange, we give up information about the size and layout of our homes, our sleeping habits, our daily schedule, and even our conversations. The services which gather and process this information often use it to create scores, which can then be used to screen people for jobs, loans, and apartment rentals. The accuracy of this data, and the algorithms used to derive the scores, are completely secret.
Spying has been around forever, and governments are always using it to get the upper hand on one another. The risk/reward calculus of cybrwar is far better than nuclear war and may very well define the battlefield for the next great international conflict. So many of the systems we depend on – water, electricity, sewer service, communication – are connected to the Internet and are ripe for disruption. Your smartphone can use facial recognition to log you in or sort your pictures, but China – the world leader in this technology – uses it as the foundation for their surveillance state.
So how do we take back control of our privacy? We exchange information with the government to make us feel more secure, and we make a similar deal with Big Tech to make our lives easier. The European Union has the set of laws known as GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) that seek to limit the amount of data that can be collected and how it is used. In the US, government agencies may have some restrictions on what they can gather from residents without the use of a warrant, but spying on people remains the fundamental business model of Big Tech.
The title “Hidden History....” raises expectations of new information or connections that we haven’t read before, and Hartmann’s book doesn’t disappoint. His biases as a popular progressive radio host are apparent, but the book is well researched, and an extensive list of references support his narrative. Hartmann’s personal experiences with the “Stingray” cell towers that surround the White House, or while visiting East Berlin with his daughter in the late 1980’s, are both revealing and impactful. Using people’s past behavior to sell them stuff, for social control, or as a form of warfare is not a new thing, but the speed and precision with which this can be done has grown frighteningly over the past few decades.
This is something to think about the next time you ask Alexa to order more tissue for the “privy.”
Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.