Geoffrey Wells Letter #12:
I continue to explore the facets of privacy. It is a meme on the Internet today, and it is mutating from the embryo of the word private. The word is stealing DNA from the words, personal, confidential, secrets and identity. They are all closely related, though the distinction is important. There’s nothing nefarious about choosing to keep aspects of your life private. In those private times when we think, reason and create, we are free. We can exercise our freedom because we do not have to trust that our personal expression is judged by anyone but ourselves. We are free to decide when to subject ourselves to the scrutiny of the world at large.
A reader of my blog, Bill, sent me a response to my post last week. Bill says that, “The age of privacy is over! It’s an antiquated idea born during the age of industrialization and urbanization. There was no privacy when humans lived in communal groups. You fought with your wife–the whole village knew about it. Children acted badly–the whole village dealt with it. Your gay son couldn’t hide in a closet. If someone or family didn’t share the bounty of their hunt, they were forced out of the group and lost their place and the protection of the group. How did the concept of privacy come about anyway? Why do we insist on privacy? Why are laws written to protect privacy? Should any information be private at all? Can the concept of privacy coexist in an Information Age? Isn’t that contradictory? We need to think about privacy in a new way! Or, as the electronic information brings us closer in so many ways, are we returning to our ancient communal societal ethos–we share information with our electronic brethren and they with us. Privacy?!?! We don’t need no stinkin’ privacy!”
Well, Bill–I beg to differ. And let me start with your last statement. In Glenn Greenwald’s TED Talk, “Why Privacy Matters”, (see video below) which has been viewed 1.4 million times, he poses the hypothetical question to someone who claims that they do not care about privacy. He would ask this person to email all his passwords to him. Of course, like you Bill, he would refuse, but not because it’s personal, or private, but because it’s confidential. Here’s the video:
Margge, another responder, points out privacy is a personal choice. And my response was to agree, but on the stage of social media, friends, family and business associates challenge us to be authentic, because authenticity breeds success, and it encourages us to reveal our personal choices. If we’d rather not, are we being false, by hiding our private lives? Neither position is satisfactory and both have ramifications. We could protest–privately, but publicly is inadvisable; the unsettling thing about protesting on the Internet is that it serves to attract more attention. Nothing is more true of this than with the privacy issue. It is so common as to have its own label: The Streisand Effect. This term was coined after Barbara Streisand unsuccessfully sued photographer Kenneth Adelman and Pictopia.com for violation of privacy. The US$50 million lawsuit endeavored to remove an aerial photograph of Streisand’s mansion from the publicly available collection of 12,000 California coastline photographs. The campaign had the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely on the Internet. (Which is why the subject of this post, asks that you don’t read it.)
Of course all the talk of privacy becomes moot if our privacy is watched without our permission. And while this certainly is a problem, the fact remains that most private information is accessible from the Internet. And most of it is not watched or exploited. Like the economy, privacy relies on trust. My new MacBook Pro laptop was delivered yesterday, on time. I thought about how much trust it took to get it from Shanghai, China to my doorstep.
How many people were entrusted to get this laptop delivered on time?
Personally, Bill (and yes, it’s my personal preference that we preserve privacy), I think we’re a lot more civilized than when the (global) village knew everything about us. And, just to invoke the Streisand Effect, I’m thrilled you didn’t read this.