Snooping

We all do it

As a computer professional, I’ve been in situations where I had access to information that others did not. Sometimes that information was mundane; sometimes it had commercial value, was personally sensitive, or just wasn’t intended for public consumption. In particular, I was responsible for maintaining some machines when I was younger. I took issues of privacy less seriously then than I do now, and looking back, it resulted in some questionable behaviour.

A person would bring a computer to me to be fixed. Often this would be a computer which they used for work purposes, and I would be left alone to make it right again. I regularly had to copy all their personal files off of the machine, then back. I quickly discovered: pretty much everyone looks at pornography. Most people either do not care to hide it, do not understand that it leaves very noticeable traces, or perhaps just forget that it’s there.

Unwise

It became a habit to do a porn-check upon receiving a new computer. This was inevitably the most interesting part of fixing a box. What had they looked at? Had they bothered hiding it? Where? It was entirely a white-hat matter of curiosity. I had access to the system, and this was a secret I could examine. I am (and always have been) strongly motivated to know things that I am not really supposed to know. Case in point: The amount I know about tunnels.

At the time I justified my behaviour by telling myself, “I’m going to see the majority of these files anyway. I need to do a sweep to make sure I’m getting all of their important documents.” In a broad sense, this is a true statement – the best lies are composed mostly of truths. My first sweep would be pretty much only be looking for that sort of sensational find, and then I’d go through and grab all of the regular vacation photos and limewire songsets and bookmarks-folders that the person publicly wanted brought to their new install.

Judgement

Was I wrong? To this day, I’m not certain if snooping in that fashion was objectively “wrong”. I don’t feel at all that it was right, but I benefited tremendously from the activity. I found a music folder a friend had hidden with pornography for some reason. It contained Radiohead’s entire discography, and was my introduction to the band. My musical tastes have been hugely influenced by my love of Radiohead. Some of the better moments in my life were spent falling asleep listening to OK Computer with a pretty cool girl. If I hadn’t have snooped back then, some of my most valued experiences would not have come to pass the same way.

I do know that, placed in that situation again, I would now act differently. In the several intervening years, I have come to possess a combination of two relevant traits. The first is an appreciation that someone’s personal information is simply not my business. The second is the apathy to not care what some vague acquaintance has squirreled away in a hidden folder inside “C:\Windows\Old_Documents”.

Universal application

What about everyone else? If everyone snooped “a bit” sometime ago, it’s pretty much as bad as if everyone just snooped regularly. Some people might find incriminating things, and then they’d be left with the difficult question: Do they contact authorities and take the hit on their own reputation, or do they let someone get away with heinous crimes? Other people might find things that they know they could sell. How much is it worth to a person to sell a secret, when it could cause real damage? What about when there is no perceivable damage to be caused? There’s a lot to this snooping thing.

On the whole, if I were to compress the stream of grays into black and white, I’d have to come down completely against improper access of information. It happens all over the place and it shouldn’t! Facebook employees seeing too much information, government employees stealing records, tech-dudes stealing data from customers? None of this is ‘right’. Taking the simplest definition of good and bad, that means that all of those things are ‘wrong’. Simple.

Can anything be done…?

Better training, more oversight, and some morality-based discussions would probably go a long way to remedy these problems. Training to help people cope with the situation in a mentally safe environment, to build up some initial resistance to the idea of snooping for fun. Oversight to catch snoopers – screen recorders or video recorders could be used to “watch the watchmen”, so to speak. People who are being watched (or even who think they are) tend to behave better. And simple moral discussions to establish firmly what is right and what is wrong, and what’s expected of people, would allow issues to be brought into the open and standards to be clear. The moral discussions overlap heavily with better training.

But aside from those, you can’t really force people not to snoop. Leaks will occur, information will get out, and that’s kind of just the nature of it. Entropy guides the increase in disorder in the universe, affecting not just pure energy but information as well. There’s no perfect transfer; something always escapes.

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