The Elephant in the Room Relating to Privacy; We’ve Never Had Any

As always, I continue to explore the bounds of what we mean by privacy, what we expect by privacy and what the issues are surrounding privacy.  The more I have read about the subject from people far smarter on the subject, as well as seen the hype or heard lay people's visceral reactions to the topic, the more I've been forced to think about "what was this privacy thing" that we all seem to harken back to, to long for?".  What was in place before the digital world emerged with such forcefulness, that now in its seeming absence, makes us feel vulnerable to unseen powers and uncontrollable forces? 

I'm going to start with a simple example as this helps to contextualize the discussion in my head.  So let's say I share information about my salary with a good friend.  Specifically, I tell him how much I earn per month and what sorts of bonuses I receive at year-end based on my performance.  This friend does not work with me nor in my industry, and as far as I know, does not hang out with any of my business associates.  This may be information that I would not readily share with colleagues.  It's also information that I would consider private and hence not meant for public dissemination, but I *trust* my friend.  There's a good possibility that I would not feel the need to tell my friend not to share this information because implicitly I'd feel that he would understand not to discuss it with others.  More importantly, to the extent that I don't believe that he knows other colleagues of mine I'd see no real harm in sharing this information.  Now, jump forward a few months and my friend is at a party where he coincidentally meets one of my colleagues.  Over drinks and while establishing their friendship the discussion on how overpaid my colleague thinks some people are at our company comes up.  My friend, on purpose or inadvertently (it really doesn't matter), shares the information about my compensation, perhaps even in defense of me being fairly compensated.  Has he violated my privacy?  Not really, I violated my privacy by sharing that information with him in the first place.  Even if I had couched the conversation with him to not say anything, the fact that I chose to share this at all means that any privacy violation is on me.  

This is one example, but we can find millions of examples of how we have never really had as much privacy as we believed we did.  Whether it was buying whips and handcuffs at an S&M store, or picking up a prescription for a herpes drug at a pharmacy, or any number of embarrassing or socially awkward activities, the fact that we interact with another person or in a public place, means that at least one other person (the sales clerk or the pharmacist and doctor in these examples), knows that information.  We *trust* that they will not widely publicize this and for those who might want to embarrass us, there is a "practical obscurity" in them finding this out.  It's difficult information for them to find out because it would take constant surveillance and some investigative skills to find out about such activities.

If we think back to direct marketers in the 1970s and 1980s, they purchased lists that offered some basic segmentation and ways to filter for only those people whom they felt would make good prospects for their product offers.  Credit card companies have always been able market to us based on our purchases.  But for marketers and anyone else who wanted access to this information, the high costs associated with obtaining the needed information about us required them to have a solid return on investment model for proceeding with this.  Note, that violating the privacy of celebrities had value to the discloser because this made news and news outlets were willing to pay for any information that could help them sell more ads or more newspapers.

Now with the cost of collecting, storing, aggregating, combining and disseminating information having dropped so precipitously, it has become much easier for more constituencies to obtain information about us at little to no cost.  In other words, the ease of obtaining information about anyone is turning all of us, begrudgingly, into celebrities.  There are more and more ways to monetize information about just about anyone.  The practical obscurity we once enjoyed has been significantly reduced and since it is not only what we share that is collected, but what others share, it's hard to see a way to legitimately believe that we will ever enjoy the practical obscurity of the pre-digital days.  Like it or not, it does look like we are being forced into becoming more and more transparent about our lives, which will also require that we begin being more accepting and tolerant of what it means to be human, faults, blemishes and all.

From a legal perspective, the existing regulations around what is considered private versus public is very arbitrary given the advancements in technology.  For example, technology makes it possible to see what is happening behind walls through heat signatures.  But this technology is not usable on someone's home unless the government agents have a warrant for this.  The technology used in airport screening devices has now also made its way into vans that can drive up next to cars and peer inside of them.  These also require a warrant for their use, but should they be used without a warrant the information gathered by a government agent is not usable in court, but it doesn't change the fact that they were able to know or see whatever they wanted to.  An individual's phone logs are not considered private by the courts because a third party (the phone company) can see them at any time and so there's no expectation of privacy here.  Government agents (which includes the police) do not need a warrant to access this information.

At the end of the day, the real privacy issue is that the digitization of data about us has made it so cheap and easy to move, that the practical obscurity has been reduced to the point where it no longer offers any serious defenses against what can be known about us by any organization (or individual) that really wants to know.  The issue isn't that privacy no longer exists, it's that it only existed as an illusion and now nearly all pretense of that illusion has been removed.  I'm not trying to be fatalistic about all of this, nor conspiratorial, but I hope to write future posts about what it means to live in a world where practical obscurities are no longer there to keep our privacy illusions alive, and then begin to explore some likely paths of evolution.  We need to come to terms with where things are now, in order to begin forging a path for where we would like them to go.


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