Does Privacy Matter?

Hysteria around privacy protection is at a peak, but is it misplaced?


In Dave Eggers’ novel, ‘The Circle’, one of the founders of Google-esque tech monolith The Circle declares to his staff that we are at ‘the dawn of the Second Enlightenment. I’m talking about an era where we don’t allow the majority of human thought and action and achievement and learning to escape as if from a leaky bucket.’ His organization believes that by ridding the world of privacy and secrets - their anti-privacy slogans include ’secrets are lies,’ ‘sharing is caring,’ and ‘privacy is theft’ - we will create a kind of Utopia in which everybody is shamed into being their best selves all of the time.

The novel is essentially 1984 for a capitalist society, depicting a surveillance state for the Instagram generation, and all of it is ideologically justified with a smiley message of self-improvement not far removed from Google’s mantra of ’Don’t Be Evil’. The Circle was much criticized on its publication, particularly in the tech press. Wired’s review of the article ran with the headline, ‘What The Internet Looks Like If You Don’t Understand It,’ and other publications were little more positive. These reviews are almost comically harsh. The Wired condemns it as ‘boring’, in the same way a petulant child might insult a schoolmate who has said they don’t like their favorite toy. It is, of course, a work of fiction, and one for which Eggers openly says he conducted little research, but it is also hard to argue with Eggers’ central premise that this is the logical consequence of tech companies abusing our privacy, and he does distil many fears that people have about our ‘right to privacy’ being eroded. However, are these fears really justified? Is our privacy actually being eroded and to the extent that it is being eroded, is it really a bad thing?

The likes of Google and Facebook collect and sell huge amounts of our personal information. We willingly give it to them in exchange for using their products. This is common knowledge, and it is largely accepted that we get to use their services for free in exchange for giving them personal information. And use them we do - A LOT. These tools have driven progress at unprecedented rates. They have, at the same time, driven hysteria around privacy at unprecedented rates. Privacy has always been a bugbear, giving rise to numerous campaign groups, articles, movies, and so forth that tell us it is being eroded. This hysteria is evident in a recent article in the Guardian, ‘The Guardian view on digital giants: they farm us for the data.’ The headline sounds like they’re coming a bit late to the party, though presumably the revelatory part that makes this a worthy article is the hyperbole employed in the idea that we are being ‘farmed’. Indeed, words like ‘harvest’ are used throughout, alluding to such films as the Matrix in which humans are enslaved and used for fuel by race of machines without ever realizing that it is happening.

In the digital age, revelations about both online businesses and the federal government tracking individuals' use of the Internet have caused many to ask where the right to privacy extends and exactly what it protects. One view is that it's a 'right to be let alone' - in other words, human beings need a kind of sphere in which they're guaranteed to be free of interference or, indeed, surveillance by governments. The laws around privacy are vague, though. The Constitution does not specifically mention a right to privacy at any point, although the US Supreme Court has noted in several decisions that it believes this right exists in the ‘penumbra’ of several other, specifically enumerated rights, such as the Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments, and as such the citizens are entitled to it under the catch-all provision of the Ninth Amendment. In the main, privacy laws really fall under the purview of other laws, such as theft, trespass, and defamation. What’s ultimately left is emotional distress, which is a fairly nebulous concept. And when you ask someone what is wrong with their privacy being violated, they will inevitably cite one of the consequences. But these are only issues with privacy in the abstract. When somebody uses your information to try and flog you a new car, ultimately how is it violating you? It’s violating your privacy, and for this to be a violation of anything, you have to consider privacy an end in and of itself for this to be a problem, and to blame lack of privacy for these is lazy, and increasing it only a band-aid for underlying solutions. If your neighbour spends his whole day in your garden exposing himself while staring in through your window, then building a higher fence is only a short term solution - you need to move or have the neighbour arrested. In the same way, if you are worried your governments are going to arrest you without due cause or companies are going to abuse your data, something needs to be done about the system that allows that to happen.

The most cohesive argument I’ve heard for privacy being a right comes from Georgetown University law professor Julie E. Cohen, who believes it is vital for self-development, and surveillance from marketers, governments, and the like stymies this. Essentially, she seems to be reaching the same conclusions that same conclusions reached by the founders of The Circle, that shame to some degree polices us. But this was always the case. When we lived in small communities, our privacy was in many ways less than it is now. If you want to do things privately in your own home, you have to buy things to do them, in the same way that you do on the internet. Only you would have had to buy them from the local shop, where the shopkeeper likely knew everyone you knew, which is surely far more off-putting.

If we do accept Cohen’s argument, then the solution is to stop companies like Google and Facebook collecting and selling our data. In order for them to make money, therefore, they would have to charge us for using their services. Whatever way this would be done, this would count out those who could not afford it from using services that are widely accepted to be integral ways in getting people out of poverty. At the moment, it is only counting out people who are a bit worried someone they don’t know will know what pornography they look at. I think I know which I’d prefer.

Big data hype small

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