Monday, February 7, 2011

Compassionate Privacy

It would be nice if Mark Zuckerberg had actually said, "Privacy is so 20th century." But if he did, I can find no credible reference. However, the phrase does seem to capture the essence of his remarks about "changing social norms regarding privacy" that Facebook seeks to champion. There is evidence, though, that Eric Schmidt, the out-going CEO of Google, did actually say, "We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about," and "If you have something you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Taken as a whole, these remarks reveal an unsettling trend toward mandating excessive sharing; like making you eavesdrop on cell phone calls about medical procedures in a coffee shop. Yeech.

This move to obsessive openness isn't a generational issue. Yes, Zuckerberg is 26, but Schmidt is 55. The phenomenon seems more a kind of “BigTech”-induced simplemindedness. Both Internet "A-listers" appear to view "privacy" as an archaic abuse of privilege: someone - your parents, your boss, "the man" - is “hiding” something to advantage themselves and disadvantage you, your friends, or "the people." I do wish privacy were that simple.

Certainly, there is a whole realm of hidden information that is venal and vindictive. We have seen too many examples of the misuse of governmental, corporate and personal secrecy to blithely assume an open and truthful world. People are "disappeared," elections are engineered, banks collapse, lakes become sewers, and the Gulf of Mexico is despoiled. One would be a fool to deny that webs of secrecy enable these human failings. But those webs of secrecy have been around for centuries. Their existence does not entitle the new digital Dons to rip away the gentle curtains of privacy that shield every human life. To acknowledge deceit does not deny the need for compassionate privacy. The Internet’s ability to peer into the most cherished and sheltered spaces in someone’s life does not legitimize the practice.

Perhaps much of the confusion surrounding the debate regarding Internet privacy stems from different entities using similar words to mean different things. “Privacy” and “secrecy” have become co-mingled to the extent that they are erroneously seen as being synonymous. However, the Oxford English Dictionary defines privacy as “The state or condition of being alone, undisturbed, or free from public attention, as a matter of choice or right; seclusion; freedom from interference or intrusion.” While secrecy is defined as “the quality of being secret or of not revealing secrets; the action, practice, or habit of keeping things secret.”

The “open life” advocates, among whom I would place both Zuckerberg and Schmidt use “privacy” when they really mean “secrecy.” Julian Assange provides perhaps the most salient contemporary example of the difference. As the majordomo of Wikileaks, Assange is secrecy’s fiercest antagonist. He obviously believes that, in the public sphere, no secret is sacred. For Assange, when governments and businesses are concerned, awkward transparency trumps the effective “habit of keeping things secret” every time. However, when the issue is what transpired in a Swedish bedroom among adults, privacy, “the right to be free from public attention” suddenly reigns supreme in his worldview.

Still, Zuckerberg and Schmidt did get a couple of things right. First, it is “complicated.” As personal information becomes increasingly valuable in the core human arenas of conflict and commerce, the ceaseless dance of Spy versus Spy drives the development of Internet-based applications that allow the gracious sphere of privacy to be punctured as never before. Second, those routine perforations of the very fabric of our lives have rightfully relegated many naïve assumptions regarding privacy to the previous century. What I believe Zuckerberg and Schmidt have gotten wrong are the implications of these realities for public policy.

The “open lifers” seem to reason that since privacy currently lies in tatters, we should simply affirm that state as acceptable: what is, is right. I have trouble with that notion. I believe we are capable of a more nuanced approach to life in the digital age, that we can devise processes that deliver the advantages of the Internet without turning our private lives into peep shows.

Let me close with a story from my life. When I was in college, shortly after the surrender at Yorktown, we were required to live in the dorm. There were 10 young men on my hall, in their teens, away from adult supervision for the first time. “This,” I thought, “is what they mean by ‘chaos theory.’” There was no privacy, ever. Oh, certainly, you could retreat to your room where only your roommate, and whomever he brought to visit, punctured your solitude. But that was as tranquil as it got. Graduation changed my life in many ways. In retrospect, one of the most profound shifts was the ability to live in a house where I could walk in and close the door. And behind that door I found “the state or condition of being alone, undisturbed, or free from public attention.” I found privacy.

I do not believe that, as a culture, we are intellectually or technically unable to craft hardware, software, and policy that allows us to occasionally turn off the lights of the Internet and just "shut the door."

1 comment:

  1. In the Western world our policy has been shaped by warfare for decades; not just the act of war but the incessant pumping of our national budget into military activities since our failure to de-mobilize after world war two. The war machine has created an atmosphere where the bulk of our fortune 500 are government contractors; I base that on working with Lockheed and ManTech overseas and interacting with the plethora of contracting entities that fall under the umbrella of megas like Fluor and Haliburton.

    The movement to eliminate privacy seems to be a response to the atmosphere we have created by tying companies and the federal system together at the waist; I believe the vehemence against concepts that can arbitrarily be tied together such as privacy and secrecy is an oversimplification created and fed to the masses as a tonic. Breaking it down under academic pretexts does not make it any easier to feed to the masses, and as long as we're examining what these people are saying isn't it just as important to examine why they are saying it?