Technology and the death of privacy

After the PRISM scandal broke, there were a lot of those who said “So what? I have nothing to hide”, but I am convinced that they didn’t do a lot of thinking before saying it.

Daniel Solove wrote a great piece on why privacy matters even if you have nothing to hide, so I won’t stray much into that debate – he said it all, and better than I could.

I just want to expand a bit on his observation that “in a less extreme form, the nothing-to-hide argument refers not to all personal information but only to the type of data the government is likely to collect. Retorts to the nothing-to-hide argument about exposing people’s naked bodies or their deepest secrets are relevant only if the government is likely to gather this kind of information.”

Everyone has one or more things they wish not to share with anyone. Sometimes these secrets are innocuous, but in a lot of cases could ruing someone’s life. In an extreme case that could mean prison, in a less extreme one the loss of job, reputation, friends and family – or is it the other way round?

As we lead more and more of our lives online and keep some of our “secrets” there, it made me think and realize that I’m not a hundred percent sure that this kind of information is not actually collected and kept for future use by companies and governments.

Recent revelations also finally hammered home the fact that some information is collected whether we have voluntarily shared it or not. And while I (we?) expect a certain amount of this type of “intrusion” in our life from the government, I really hate it that it has become normal to expect it from private businesses and that there is practically nothing I can do about it.

In a recent article, Jill Lepore, professor of American history at Harvard University, has explained beautifully the history and present of the notions of secrecy and privacy, and has pointed out – among other things – two thoughts (facts?) that I would rather not face.

First that, as centuries passed by, “there is no longer a public self” – “there are only lots of people protecting their privacy, while watching themselves, and one another, refracted, endlessly, through a prism of absurd design”. And second, that “the defense of privacy follows, and never precedes, the emergence of new technologies for the exposure of secrets”.

“In other words, the case for privacy always comes too late. The horse is out of the barn. The post office has opened your mail. Your photograph is on Facebook. Google already knows that, notwithstanding your demographic, you hate kale,” she states.

She also noted that the nature of the new technology matters little, but there I beg to differ – I think that the galloping technological evolution will make every succeeding shift more life-changing that the one before, and I’m afraid that the shift will be negative for everyone’s privacy.

But do we want to stop it? And what’s more: can we stop it? I fear that the answer in both cases might be no.

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