The birth and death of privacy


I was in a local grocery store recently and it was my misfortune to enter, and walk most of the same aisles at the same time as a voluble woman shopper. She spent her entire time there on her cell phone. From before she entered, through the time she collected her groceries, went through the cash register, and exited, she did not once stop talking. Loudly.

And it was a very personal, intimate conversation, as I and those in her near vicinity heard. Not intimate as in sexual, but she talked about private and personal issues, about other people, her feelings, her job, and so on. Did I mention she was loud? Loud enough to hear her clearly at the far end of the aisle.

The whole store was her audience. I saw other shoppers looking at her, some staring angrily, but she was oblivious. And that made me wonder if we have, thanks to the swell of new technologies, entirely abandoned the notion of privacy that we have slowly crafted over the past three millennia.

No we haven’t, says Neil M. Richards, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, In 2014, he published a paper on “Four Privacy Myths.” In it, he wrote:

…if we think about privacy as outdated or impossible, our digital revolution may have no rules at all, a result that will disempower all but the most powerful among us… we can no longer think about privacy as merely how much of our lives are completely secret, or about privacy as hiding bad truths from society. How we shape the technologies and data flows will have far-reaching effects for the social structures of the digital societies of the future.

It is possible, I suppose, that the woman on her phone was just an unusually rude and inconsiderate person. But I’ve seen too many similar incidents with other people to believe she is a rare example. It’s not just her lack of cell-phone manners: it was her attitude towards her personal information that caught my attention and made me research the intersection of privacy and technology.

Actually, most of our modern, Western notions of privacy are quite new, many culturally instilled only in the last 150 years. Personal privacy, as we now consider it, was not the norm before the 19th century.  (Aside from sexual privacy, which historically was preserved, but is being eroded by the vast tsunami of online pornography, including celebrity sex tapes and images…). The camera, in the late 19th century, was really the spark that lit the conversation about privacy.

Greg Ferenstein has put together a fascinating history of privacy in 46 images that shows how we developed our idea of having a private space over the ages. It’s quite enlightening.

But private space isn’t necessarily a private life. Confidentiality and privacy are not the same. And we seem to have a conflict between how we view the privacy of others versus how we perceive our own. Especially when it comes to being spied on by the state.

In January, 2015, a study showed that four seemingly unrelated, apparently innocuous pieces of data are enough to identify 90% of individuals. And a 94% chance of extracting credit card information. So clearly even our private lives – or what we think of as our private lives (reality and imagination may clash) – are open to scrutiny. That, however, doesn’t seem to stop us pursing those activities that identify us.

Today, you might think we’re privacy-obsessed. People walk down the street with earbuds that shut out the world and repel interaction with others. The news is filled with stories about cybercrime and protecting your identity and we editorialize over our exposure. Headlines about Edward Snowden or Julian Assange still generate heated debates about government secrecy and our own privacy.

We have passwords for everything, PIN codes for our credit cards and thumb-print scanners for our iPhones. Our wireless networks are locked. It seems we’re privacy-obsessed. But it’s an illusion.

At the same time, we share an enormous amount of personal information about ourselves on social media. We post pictures of ourselves on vacation, or in clubs and restaurants, letting others know our homes are empty. We post information about our purchases, our tastes, our political leaning, our sexual orientation, our religious beliefs, our hobbies, foods, habits, pets and homes.

We often share such information because we mistakenly think our posts are restricted to our “friends” but in reality they are constantly being mined for information by corporations, marketers and criminals. We know police and governments can read our emails, web posts and blogs, and security agencies have computers scanning internet traffic for keywords and signals of illicit activity.

Yet even when we know all of this, we continue to share personal content, exposing ourselves online in ways our parents would have thought only extreme extroverts would engage in.

Just like those people who engage in personal and even intimate conversations on their cell phones in public, among strangers. Have we abandoned privacy? If not, perhaps our definition of confidential or personal is growing lax because we can’t beat technology.

Richards argues users of social media have, “…limited choices and limited information about how to participate in the processing of their data.” To my mind, that should encourage a more parsimonious approach to sharing personal information.

The model that social media advertises is that sharing equals popularity and popularity equals personal success. The more people you share to, the more successful you are. People who don’t share are, in social media terms, losers. Success demands less privacy.

On the other hand, the technology enables our connections and allows us to interact with people well outside our physical range. Friends and family in far parts of the country, even of the world, are no longer isolated from us. Is the loss of “a little privacy” not a small price to pay for such enhanced interaction?

But what is privacy? Is there a commonly-accepted definition? American lawyers Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis described the right to privacy in 1891 as “the right to be let alone.” In 1967 it was described as “the claim of individuals, groups, or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others.”

Hypocritically, we collectively revel when the privacy of a celebrity or politician is broken, especially if it reveals something scandalous or salacious. It’s as if their privacy and our privacy are different spheres of existence. They aren’t entitled to a private life: only we are. It has always been thus for the rich and famous. In his book, “Natural History” (~77CE), Pliny the Elder, wrote:

Great fortune … allows nothing to be concealed, nothing hidden; it opens up the homes of princes, and not only that but their bedrooms and intimate retreats, and it opens up and exposes to talk all the arcane secrets.

We scream loudly when our own privacy and confidentiality is threatened, even while we delight seeing other people’s violated. We rear up in anger if we are criticized or shamed in public, while we delight in “reality” shows that expose other people’s foibles, weaknesses and intimacies and shames them in public.

It’s a conundrum.

Historian Jill Lepore says we have evolved into a culture that, “…wishes to be displayed but not to be seen.” In 2013, she wrote an article in the New Yorker about the, “…intricacy of the relationship between secrecy and privacy…” noting:

…the relationship between secrecy and privacy can be stated in an axiom: the defense of privacy follows, and never precedes, the emergence of new technologies for the exposure of secrets. In other words, the case for privacy always comes too late. The horse is out of the barn. The post office has opened your mail. Your photograph is on Facebook. Google already knows that, notwithstanding your demographic, you hate kale.

The rise of the “citizen journalist” (in reality “citizen paparazzi”) has made privacy harder to accomplish. This sort of neighbour-spying-on-neighbour has been elevated to positive status by the internet. It has turned what we called in pre-internet days snoops, stalkers and peeping toms into pop stars among the ignorati. But you would think it would make someone guard his or her privacy more, rather than loudly sharing their personal life with strangers in a grocery store. Or posting intimate and personal information on a website knowing it is subject to data harvesting.

Brandeis’ and Warren’s 1891 comment shows that technology and privacy have had a confrontational relationship that long pre-dates the internet:

Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person, and for securing to the individual what Judge Cooley calls the right “to be let alone” Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that “what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.” For years there has been a feeling that the law must afford some remedy for the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons; and the evil of invasion of privacy by the newspapers, long keenly felt, has been but recently discussed by an able writer.

Further, they add a comment about newspaper gossip that could just as easily be read a comment on today’s bloggers and the effect on their targets (which we know all too well locally from malicious local bloggers and biased media last term):

To satisfy a prurient taste the details of sexual relations are spread broadcast in the columns of the daily papers. To occupy the indolent, column upon column is filled with idle gossip, which can only be procured by intrusion upon the domestic circle. The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury.

As I said, the relationship with technology and privacy is a conundrum. I’m still reading about it and trying to settle in my own mind just where I drawn my own lines and just how much I really want to share with others through the enabling technologies.

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