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2013 was the year that privacy satire became meaningless

Coalition mid-term wordleBy Simon Davies

Amidst mind-blowing scandals and sensational revelations, 2013 became a landmark year for privacy awareness. However one unfortunate consequence is that it’s now difficult to get away with satirical writing on the subject. Many people believe that even the most outlandish spoof is straight reporting of the truth.

Like other sites, Privacy Surgeon occasionally indulges in satire. You can spot this material because it has “satire” tagged loudly underneath each headline.

Aeroflot staff show-off the fridge behind which Edward Snowden lived for three weeks

Aeroflot staff show-off the fridge behind which Edward Snowden lived for three weeks

Yet with each new article it seems more and more people fail to see the joke. Yes, I know this site has a fine reputation for credible and serious publishing, but even the smartest journalists and experts are starting to believe that anything is possible, and the satirical is now believable.

Either that or privacy advocates are losing their sense of humour (and they’d have every justification for doing so).

I’m reminded of an observation by the late US humorist Art Buchwald: “You can’t make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire. All you’re doing is recording it.”

But this got me to pondering just how far we’ve come just in the space of a year – and yet, how dangerous it can be if we lose our sense of perspective.

Take the most recent incident. Yesterday I published a piss-take on Google Glass entitled “Outrage builds as thousands of Google Glass eye-pieces become fused with the faces of users”.

The column couldn’t have been more absurd. I produced a straight-faced article explaining how thousands of Glass users had discovered all at the same time that their eye-piece had been chemically bonded to their skin. I even invented a leading surgeon who speculated that “the Bone conduction transducers of the eye-ware had been loaded with highly sophisticated nanobots which sampled and analysed the user’s skin before “growing” into the flesh.”

A Google Glass victim broadcasts images as surgeons work to remove the technology

A Google Glass victim broadcasts images as surgeons work to remove the technology

So, invisible flesh-eating robots were secretly transforming the faces of Glass users in a vast conspiracy with the NSA to produce a Borg army. And yet you can have no idea just how many people commented on how outrageous it is that Google would do such a thing.

I mean, Google has an appalling track record but it’s a way off cannibalising its users. Not in the physical sense of the word anyway.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have quoted Google chairman Eric Schmidt saying “If you’re doing something that you don’t want other people to see, then perhaps you should just shut up”. That statement truly is believable.

I went out on a limb a few months ago with a piece called “World exclusive: women’s magazine scoops first interview with Edward Snowden” in which the fugitive had broken his silence to speak from his airport refrigerator to Brendan Puce from Good Housekeeping magazine (the runner-up story on the front cover was “Noam Chomsky’s healthy polemic on the Michel Foucault diet plan”). They spoke about hair stylists, Moscow airport food and other such riveting topics.

But why all the hate mail from readers who were angry at Snowden for “blowing a great opportunity”? Surely the last exchange of the “interview” should have given the game away:

BRENDAN Finally, do you have any advice for readers who are really freaked out by all these revelations?

EDWARD Sure. Whatever you do, never ever mix green peppers with linguini. It’ll just make you feel worse.

The only known photograph of Rose Porter

The only known photograph of Rose Porter

On the subject of the NSA, no fewer than three journalists and bloggers asked whether I could send them a scan of the letter from the British Prime Minister to the European Commission that I had discussed in “Revealed: David Cameron’s threat to Europe over NSA spying”.

Wow, I thought the satire in this piece was blatant, but apparently not. Seriously, can you imagine any national leader writing to the president of the European Commission in these words:

“I need not remind you that the basis of the our founding document, the Treaty of Rome, was to permit nations to unilaterally stitch up the market to their benefit. It goes without saying that a morally defensible position to protect the redundant coal and steel industries should apply even more so to the buoyant national security market.”

Finally, in an extreme expression of satire I wrote “US now on collision course with Spain over extradition of grandmother” in which I reported on how a 67 year-old diabetic pottery enthusiast grannie had de-stabilised global geo-politics with a casual remark in a French supermarket:

“The French apology was viewed by many in the US administration as a treacherous act that triggered a geo-political shift. Within a week Mrs Porter was held responsible for the most dangerous slide in north-south relations in more than half a century.”

“All eyes are now focused on the Spanish coastal town of Nerja, where Mrs Porter has been in hiding for the past four days. Although she has not been seen since arriving it is believed that the twice-married diabetic is holed up in the ladies toilet of the Paradiso hotel, just off the main street.”

Now I suspect you’re getting the gist of all this. My inbox was filled with messages like “Now the US has gone TOO FAR!!” and “Surely something can be done to help her?”

It’s lovely to see evidence of people’s humanity, but just a tad worrying that the collapse of perspective on reality will damage the longer-term interests of reform.