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Privacy is so 20th Century

Sina Odugbemi's picture
Modern life is life on the grid: credit cards, smart phones, internet connections, social media presence and so on. And here is the truth: Life on the grid is life in a fishbowl erected on stilts in a bazaar. As a result, something that we once thought was important to us as citizens is not simply lost, it is irretrievably lost: it is the idea of privacy.

The concept of privacy itself is notoriously difficult to define. In reading around the subject, I found this description of it by Larry Peterman in a 1993 essay in The Review of Politics titled ‘Privacy’s Background’:

We look upon the private as that part of our lives insulated against the communal or public broadly constructed, protected from unwarranted intrusion by others, including political authorities, and the place where, in the last resort, we can clothe ourselves in anonymity.

I think that is exactly right. It is what Grant Mindle, in an earlier essay, calls ‘concealment and seclusion’ that protected place where we can have parts of our lives that will not leak into the public arena.

What is fascinating though is that the person who did the most to define a right to privacy, Justice Louis Brandeis, calls privacy ‘the right to be let alone’, and specifically the right to block the relentless encroachment of technologies that conspire to take whatever is private about our lives into the public domain. Apparently, he was appalled by what the emerging media in the America of the late 19th century could do to the life of a citizen by making private activities public without permission or warrant. In 1890, he collaborated with a friend to write the landmark Harvard Law Review article ‘The Right to Privacy’. Later, as a justice of the Supreme Court, he did much to expand and defend the right.  However, the relentless march of technology and our own behavior seem to me to have conspired to make privacy a thing of the past.

Consider if you would the array of powerful forces driving the collapse of any notion of privacy if you live a fully modern life:

  1. Big Data: Technology companies and data brokers are compiling vast data banks about all of us and there is a robust trade in data about our lives. What is more, the laws cannot keep up with what new technologies make possible. Here is the headline of a recent Financial Times report: ‘Patchwork of data covers all of us from the cradle to the grave’. Here is an expert quote from a column on the same subject by John Gapper. He quotes Kai-Fu Lee, former head of Google in China as saying: ‘It is both a wonderful and a scary future. Companies with huge amounts of data will know more about you than yourself. They will be able to predict what you might do next.’ Sources of data about your life that data brokers are amassing daily include: physical purchases, public records, consumer surveys, online tracking cookies, warranty cards, sweepstake entries, and anything else they can find. Data aggregators have algorithms that can make intelligent, often accurate guesses about you and your future behavior.  My point is: if they can do that, in what way do you still have privacy?
  2. Governments: in the name of the fight against terrorism – a real enough fight – the major governments are investing in unprecedented information hovering capacity about all our lives: our phone calls, emails, on-line chats, name it and they can track it if they find you interesting enough. On-going controversies make it unnecessary for me to say more.
  3. Hacking or malware: Now, this is what I find truly scary. The more I learn about cyber crime the more I realize that if major companies are often helpless in the face of attacks by cyber criminals private individuals have no chance at all of keeping their activities private if they live on the grid. If you are not fully informed on the subject of cyber crime I would urge you to read a recent report in the New Yorker (May 20, 2013 pages 64-70): ‘Network Insecurity: Are we losing the battle against cyber crime?’ by John Seabrook. It is an excellent piece. I decided to write this blog post after reading it. And by the way, the answer to the question posed is yes. We are losing the fight against cyber crime.
  4. CCTV Cameras and Cameras on PCs: I hope you know that malware can be used to turn the camera on your PC into a surveillance program that watches you in real time. But consider as well the increasing ubiquity of CCTV cameras…streets, buses, shops, everywhere. More and more, modern life is a life recorded …on camera. As you go about your day, you are actually starring in a movie about your day, your life. Should you be under investigation for whatever reason the authorities can compose a picture of your day very quickly …all in Technicolor. Then it hits you: you are a movie star! The amazing thing is that we go about our lives in the modern world not thinking about how often we are photographed and filmed in the course of each day; we still think of ourselves as operating in an inviolable zone of privacy.
  5. DNA Banks: Can you think about anything more private than your DNA? Well, DNA banks are being created quietly by not just the authorities but also private sector players who want to know whether to sell you life insurance or health insurance or forecast all kinds of biological events that might be in your future. 
So, the people who still have something called a zone of privacy are people who are gloriously off the grid: the poor rural dweller in some remote redoubt, who is not connected to the internet, has no mobile phone (in fact, no phone at all), has no credit cards, operates in the informal economy where she is and so on. For the rest of us, privacy today really means you are not INTERESTING to anybody:
  • Governments don’t find you interesting because you have not committed a crime, and you are not known to consort with criminals or terrorists. Then they don’t take the trouble to build a picture of your life the way they can and as quickly as they now can.
  • To businesses and data brokers, as well as hackers, you are not interesting if you don’t have money, that is, significant purchasing power. You are simply not worth the trouble if you are poor.
Finally, I have just discovered that as far back as 1989 Grant Mindle had argued in an essay in The Journal of Politics, titled ‘Liberalism, Privacy, and Autonomy’ that a philosophical shift from the idea of privacy to the idea of autonomy was taking place in the West. Autonomy celebrates ‘unbridled self-realization’; it craves not concealment but social acceptance, being seen by all…warts and all. Whatever merit you ascribe to the philosophical argument, is it not interesting that millions of people today - especially those under 40 –have embraced social media with an astonishing vehemence? And what are they doing with it? They are not asking for privacy. They are living out loud, revealing themselves fully and riotously; they are letting it all hang out…in the emerging global public sphere. 

Privacy is so 20th Century.

Photo Courtesy: luigi diamanti / freedigitalphotos
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Submitted by daniel on

Yes, it may be 20th century, but the real question is whether the loss of privacy is a good thing? In a democratic country where we can assume that the system is there for the good of its citizens, the loss of privacy might bother few. Anyone who has experienced a totalitarian regime that wishes to squelch out those that question the system or oppose certain ideas of their government, the loss of privacy is disturbing and potentially dangerous. Even advanced democracies have had periods in their history where individuals with different ideas were systematically targetted. I wonder what groups are being monitored today and systematically tracked based on beliefs, place of origin, etc.? We do not know and we have to rely on the word of those that do collect that data that they respect individual liberties. In Joseph Staline's own words" trust is good control is better" I would like to be able to control what I consider my private sphere.

I agree. Personally, I don't think the loss of privacy is a good thing, which is why I am  considering going 'primitive' about aspects of my life to shield them from all these fancy technologies!

Thanks for the comment.

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