A Guide to Living in a Post-Privacy World

It seems apparent that privacy is soon going to go the way of the record store, and for much the same reason. Once information becomes digital, it becomes harder to prevent people from copying it than it is to copy it in the first place. Instead of trying to hold back the digital floodgates like the RIAA's fruitless efforts to combat file sharing, I think we should examine why we need privacy in the first place, and what would have to change to make the world a good place to live without it.

Just to be clear, I don't think privacy is bad, or useless, or stupid. I just think it is a fact of life that information will find its way to being free, that is to say, more or less public. We should examine what goals we are trying to achieve with privacy and try to find alternative means to achieve them.

So why do we need privacy, anyway? How can we satisfy those needs without privacy?

Shame: One of the first things a privacy advocate will ask is usually, "If you're so comfortable sharing information about yourself, would you be willing to let everyone watch you go to the bathroom?" (Or have sex, or masturbate, or any other normally private activity) Of course, most people would not want that. They'd feel ashamed, embarrassed, judged. They would rightfully feel this way because many people would think it is appropriate to shame and judge them.

Shame has its place sometimes. It is the community's mechanism for correcting inappropriate behavior. For example, NBA owner Donald Sterling recently made some racist remarks in what he no doubt thought was a private conversation with his girlfriend. Much to his surprise, his girlfriend recorded the conversation and released it to the public, upon which Donald Sterling has been rightfully shamed by the media and the general public at large.

Is this a bad thing? We've seen indisputable evidence in the history of the civil rights movement that such racist attitudes are actively harmful to society. Shame is a tool the community uses to root out such harmful attitudes and behaviors and discourage them. When used appropriately, it's very effective and helpful. Notice how nobody was lamenting Donald Sterling's loss of privacy in the affair.

But the judgement behind shame is not always correct. People are also made to feel ashamed for behaviors that ultimately do not harm the community in any way, such as basically any sexual activity between consenting adults. Many of these taboos date back centuries, if not millennia, and are codified into religions. But we're not the primitive society we once were. We have far better tools now to determine which behaviors are legitimately harmful and which are merely odd. We should start employing them so that shame could be dealt out where it is needed and avoided where people are best left alone.

Danger: When Google Buzz was released the service automatically combed through the user's email account and added as contacts anyone they had corresponded with. These contacts were then visible to everyone else on the service. For most people this was a minor annoyance, but there were reports of at least one woman whose abusive ex-husband was able to find out whom she was associating with and possibly where she was living.

The real problem in this situation is not so much that Google revealed this information, but that our justice system was depending on a method of security through obscurity to keep this woman safe from harm. In a world where access to information is ubiquitous and near instantaneous we can no longer accept simply not telling someone your address as a way to prevent them from finding you. As a result, we can no longer tolerate those who threaten the safety of others. This means harsher punishments for violence and getting serious about enforcing restraining orders.

Freedom: This is the big one. Or so I thought, when I started writing this: The argument was going to go like this: We need to be able to think subversive thoughts and to make subversive statements without coming under the scrutiny of authority figures. If the government has access to everything we say, then they'll be able to use it against us to put us in jail unjustly.

The more I think about this, the more fundamentally wrong it seems. The premise accepts as an inevitability that there will be a government that will want to unjustly put people in jail. We have, long ago, decided that people should not be imprisoned simply for what they say. We wrote it into the founding documents of the United States. I think we need to hold our government to task for that, and not depend on hiding critical or subversive speech.

In any case, governments are quickly finding that the fluidity of information goes in both directions. As organizations like WikiLeaks are working on exposing unduly classified information, governments are finding out that their own privacy is no less susceptible to violation than that of their citizens.

Feelings: Finally, privacy advocates will say that we need privacy because it just feels better. There is a sense of apprehension that accompanies actions and thoughts when you know someone is watching. You might be more guarded in what you say or do and you can't be completely at ease except maybe around your closest friends and family. I don't deny these feelings are true. I've certainly felt them myself, and continue to do so. But they're often presented as an a priori argument for privacy. The feelings exist, so that must mean that there is a natural, inborn need for privacy that humans have, right?

I don't think so. Feelings don't exist in a vacuum. You feel sad when someone close to you dies. You feel happy when good things happen to you. You feel scared when your safety is threatened. Feelings are usually the result of external stimuli. (When they're not, it tends to be because of a chemical imbalance in the brain e.g. clinical depression). The feelings associated with a lack of privacy are merely a response to the possibility of one of the above three reactions of others to the things we want to keep private. We get a sense of apprehension because we fear we're going to be judged, or endangered. In general, whenever there's an uncertainty to the outcome of our actions we feel fear.

The first time you jumped off of a high dive into the pool it was probably scary. Without any experience of the situation you couldn't be sure of the outcome. After you landed safely in the pool, it got easier. You knew what to expect. In the face of a lack of privacy we need to work on creating a society in which people can expect that they won't be unjustly shamed or endangered for airing unpopular views or having unusual (but not harmful) habits.

I know this is probably a pipe dream. It's certainly no easy task. The question is whether it's more or less feasible than keeping digital information contained. So far, we've proved woefully inadequate in that regard. Maybe it's time we start trying to adapt ourselves to the new nature of the world. It's going to involve exercising more care in how we wield tools like shame, and we're going to have to demand more of our government when it comes to protecting our freedoms. These aren't bad things though. In the worst case, we make the world a better place even if it wasn't strictly required.

Originally published 2014-05-28 08:36:01