Transformational concepts often go hand and hand with technology. Our view of time was shaped by clocks (and railroads). Freedom of the press could only emerge with printing and has been continually adjusted as new communications media have emerged.
Privacy became something different with the emergence of big cities, and now it is being revolutionized by new devices and the Internet. We can be tracked through RFID in our cars, GPS in our phones and electronic access cards. Closed circuit cameras follow our moves on the highways, on city streets, in malls and sometimes in our offices. Our financial transactions are recorded through debit cards and credit cards.
Online, our relationships show up in our e-mail traffic, our Twitter tweets, and our Friends and Links in social networks. Facebook and Gmail use the text of our notes and comments to suggest products. Even a look through Wikipedia can be sampled and lead to targeted ads.
Our online profiles are rich, shared and becoming more detailed. Datamining and semantics connect the dots and find patterns that can tag us and sort us.
Both Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sun’s Scott McNealy have been quoted as saying, effectively, “Privacy is dead. Get over it.” Does this matter? Many people I know find the whole subject uninteresting, declaring that their lives are open books. And people who aren’t up to something have nothing to fear. Many people under thirty, perhaps influenced by reality television, don’t give privacy a second thought. All exposure is good. As showman P.T. Barnum said, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.”
I think most people recognize the risks of identity theft in a wide-open environment. Some share concerns about the accuracy of what is in dossiers accumulating in shadowy files. (This can have some troubling consequences. My brother has the same name as someone on the no-fly list. Getting through airport security is always a trial for him. And the reason why people in the U.S. have the right to see their credit reports is because they often contain errors that raise their payments.)
A concern I have is how these permanent online records preserve us in amber. There was a time when people could escape being defined by their neighbors in small towns (“that family never did any good”) by leaving for the big city. Not anymore. Your identity, including every strange thing you may have explored in your youth, every half-baked idea and every ill-considered choice travels right along with you. And even if you never made a mistake, some things in your life probably aren’t appropriate to every audience and many only make sense with context and careful interpretation.
A tabloid world is not a friendly environment, and that is what we have without privacy. Our opportunities to experiment and explore are curtailed. Our ability to gain entrée to certain groups is closed off. And we may become victims of gossip, exaggeration, and bullying.
Does technology offer any hope? Certainly, we could use datamining and semantics to detect and appeal unfair characterizations. It might be possible to set some files to erase after a period of time. We can even up the score by exposing people who attack us, since, presumably, their lives are also being recorded. And we can provide better error checking and the chance to put information into better contexts.
But technology is probably not the answer here. As with the press and clocks, standards of behavior and etiquette may emerge. And we might get some help through legal protections. Overall, I believe loss of privacy raises our risks and reduces the quality of life and our society’s ability to benefit from creativity and freedom of expression. But shepherding privacy through our changing times will not be easy.