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Privacy's Sliding Scale


Privacy's Sliding Scale

Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images

Privacy is a wonderful and complex thing. To my mind, it should operate on a sliding scale under the individual’s control: total privacy for those who want to research information for themselves or communicate in confidence with others, through partial privacy for those willing to exchange personal data for convenient services, down to zero privacy for those who want to strut their stuff in public.

The partial or total surrender of privacy is familiar to us through our transactions with the likes of Google (GOOG) and our use of platforms such as Twitter. That’s fine, as long as the individual chooses to surrender his or her personal data. But I’d like to dwell for a moment on the concept of total privacy and why it should be an option even in the online age.

Privacy means different things in different cultures, and the Western understanding of privacy is largely a function of the industrial age. When we all lived in villages and small towns, people knew a lot more about their neighbors than they do now. It was only when the railways developed and we found ourselves clustering in cities that we began to lead more dislocated, anonymous lives.

In both the preindustrial and industrial ages, we retained the ability to have private conversations. And, as anonymity grew, it also became easier to learn new information without others being in on those conversations—think of the ability to get a book from a bookseller or a tract from a pamphleteer without knowing that person or (spies withstanding) having it recorded or widely known that you gained this knowledge. Indeed, freedom from prying eyes continues to be a driver for many people to move from the small town to the big city.

Now we live in a post-industrial age where the advent of Internet connectivity has allowed us to do new things: to form nebulous communities based on interests rather than geography; to share knowledge more easily than ever before; and to become much more mobile, with many jobs just as easily executed from home or from another country as they were in the traditional, centralized office.

The question is, does the shift into this new age necessarily mean forgoing the freedom of the last? I hope not, because I believe the option of anonymity gave us great intellectual freedom.

There are, to my mind, two kinds of freedom of speech: freedom to say what you want to say publicly in public, and freedom to say what you want to say privately in private. The former is crucial because it allows us to inform others freely, while the latter is crucial because it allows us to inform ourselves freely.

There is immeasurable value in the private conversation between friends or trusted colleagues. It is through such confidential exchanges that we get to experiment with new ideas. These ideas may be wrong, offensive, or even—if put into practice—illegal, and it is through the mechanism of private conversation that we can tell each other that one idea makes sense and that another is best left unfulfilled.

Similarly, private Web browsing—a conversation with an index, if you will—can greatly expand our horizons. Fortunately, the Web brings with it a crude peer-review system: In general, stupid suggestions get shot down, while good ideas gain traction. It’s a glorious, unruly intellectual laboratory.

That all changes, however, when we know we are potentially being watched by forces more powerful than ourselves. And, unfortunately, we have allowed this to become the case, by increasingly relying on the Internet as an interface between ourselves and the world.

Those of us who have advanced beyond adolescence generally put checks on what we say in public. We present a certain face that may be straightlaced or offensive, but we usually cut out or play down the thoughts and comments that would be inconsistent with the way we want others to see us.

This has always been the case, and rightly so—there is nothing wrong with having divergent public-facing and private personas, for the reasons I have outlined above. Yes, there is a risk of hypocrisy, but there is also the opportunity for personal development that may, once refined, help others develop as well.

It is not necessary to be watching someone in order to change their behavior. All that is needed, as the philosopher Jeremy Bentham posited with his Panopticon prison design, is for that person to reasonably suspect he is being watched. The result is the most powerful kind of censorship: self-censorship. If you can get someone to avoid stepping out of line, even in private. where it affects no one else, then you control that person.

I’m not arguing that NSA surveillance was deliberately intended to exercise this kind of mental control. The agency almost certainly had no intention of letting the public know about its surveillance activities, because information is power in its own right, and the public is now armed with knowledge it can use to fight back. Edward Snowden’s leaks, however, have put us in a position where we are rightfully paranoid, and as a result we now face a decision about how to proceed—in our own heads as well as through the courts and on the streets.

The Internet age has brought our personal conversations and our very thoughts online. So should we now accept that these things must be limited to what those with power find acceptable? I would argue not.

As the splendidly named security expert Moxie Marlinspike has eloquently argued, society and its laws do not develop without a degree of experimentation. He brings up the fact that sodomy used to be illegal in Minnesota, as was marijuana use until very recently in Colorado and Washington:

“Imagine if there were an alternate dystopian reality where law enforcement was 100 percent effective, such that any potential law offenders knew they would be immediately identified, apprehended, and jailed. If perfect law enforcement had been a reality in MN, CO, and WA since their founding in the 1850s, it seems quite unlikely that these recent changes would have ever come to pass. How could people have decided that marijuana should be legal, if nobody had ever used it? How could states decide that same sex marriage should be permitted, if nobody had ever seen or participated in a same sex relationship?

“The cornerstone of liberal democracy is the notion that free speech allows us to create a marketplace of ideas, from which we can use the political process to collectively choose the society we want.”

It is also worth remembering that, even if our current administrations and legal frameworks are well-intentioned, totalitarian states have a nasty habit of coming into being. Such forces would delight in pervasive surveillance capabilities and the acquiescent mindsets they encourage. History does repeat itself, however secure we may feel today, and we should always refrain from building tools for tyrants.

So, for the sake of ourselves and our children, we need to retain the option of true privacy for those who want and need it. It’s more fundamental to our lives than we sometimes realize, and the implications of abandoning it are far more dangerous than any terrorist attack.

Also from GigaOM:

Piracy Is the Biggest of Several Speed Bumps for Google Glass (subscription required)

The Pirate Bay Founder Is Raising Money for Spy Proof Messaging App

Good Design Is Becoming a Must Have in the Enterprise, Too

Urban Observatory Pledges to Create Smart Maps Based on Powerful Data

Yelp Rolls Out Platform for Local Booking Local Services, Starting with Food Delivery

Meyer is a senior writer for Gigaom.

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