Has Technology Doomed Privacy?
One of the biggest questions on my mind for the past seven or eight years, and cause for a general chronic uneasiness in my heart, has been the nature of privacy going forward as a result of technological changes. To give you some background, I went to college between 2001-2005. It was only during the final moments of my senior year that YouTube was founded and went live to the public. Practically no cell phones had video recording capability. Google wasn’t monitoring everything you did and had nowhere near the power it does today. The NSA had begun to hit its stride with the surveillance apparatus it constructed in the late 1990’s, going on steroids in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. Most cars didn’t have GPS location tracking.
The past decade has changed all of that. The world of 2014 is radically different in terms of privacy than the world of 2001-2005 when I first moved away from home and starting making my way in life. If you are in a populated area, the odds are good you are being recorded or tracked somewhere, somehow.
The evidence indicates part of this discomfort is cultural. I was, am, and likely always will be an American to my core. The United States is enormous. If you want some 20,000 acre farm out in the middle of nowhere, you can do it. Unless you grew up in a major city such as New York, you probably aren’t used to people being on top of you. You have land; a place you can walk, grow your garden, read under a tree, or build a pool. The natural outgrowth is people became used to the idea of not having others watch them, unlike Japan. Population is so dense in Japan that the Japanese language never evolved a word for “privacy” in the sense that those in the United States or Canada use it. The entire concept is foreign.
This indicates that, inherently, privacy is not an absolute human condition but a by-product of geography that then makes its way into cultural indoctrination. (Theoretically, it could become ingrained in a given population at some point due to natural selection, I suppose, but that seems unlikely given the melting pot genetic background that makes up most American citizens, who lack the ancestral conformity of a nation such as, say, North Korea.)
I find myself inherently uneasy about sharing too much information, which is why even this blog focuses more on ideas than on me, personally. I’m not on Facebook because I don’t want the world to know where I eat every day, where I regularly go on vacation, or when I happened to run into an old friend at the grocery store. Am I doing anything wrong? No. I don’t drink, don’t do drugs, don’t steal money, have never cheated on my taxes, and spend most of my time trying to improve myself, learn about some new topic, generate more cash to fund investments, or hang out with friends and family.
Still, despite nothing to hide, I feel deeply, intrinsically, that if someone were to monitor me, it would be a severe violation of my basic rights. Perhaps it’s the fourth grade social studies lessons on the importance of the IV Amendment of the United States Constitution pertaining to probable cause for search and seizure; how, absent this sense of inherent privacy rights, totalitarianism can grab an easier foothold. Information is power, and a consolidation of personal information would give a central authority too much power relative to the citizenry.
Privacy Isn’t Absolute, Nor Should It Be, But I Can’t Accept Total Abolition
Do I think there are reasonable limits to privacy? Absolutely. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I fall firmly in the same camp as conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on the issue of “civic courage” when it comes to public disclosure laws of political activities to prevent corruption and allow citizens to follow trails of those attempting to influence laws. In a situation like the one he was ruling on in his case, there is a compelling interest in the general public in knowing who is trying to use the force of government to control their behavior. In other scenarios? No. I’ve never run a red light in my life, yet I detest the mere notion of automatic ticket-generating traffic cams that monitor citizens like something out of 1984. To my recollection, I’ve never left a hateful, malicious, or cruel comment on a website, yet I don’t like the idea of site administrators requiring “real name” verification so you can only comment under your actual identity. It just makes me … uneasy.
I can’t tell you if it is rational, or merely an artifact of my upbringing in a nation where privacy was the de facto norm. The evidence indicates it may be a bit of both. Take the idea of the Resident Registration Number in South Korea. You have to have it to identify yourself on the Internet, and your fingerprints are on file with the government tied to the RRN. Things were going along fine until they weren’t – in July of 2011, there was a hacking breach at SK Communications that revealed roughly 70% of citizen ID numbers, which resulted in the country banning sites from using them for any purpose other than payment submission. It’s dangerous to have that kind of information floating out there. I’d go so far as to think the Internet itself should be encrypted and de-centralized. If the United States Government attempted an RRN system here, you might have a civil war on your hands, yet the people of South Korea just accepted it.
I mean, privacy in the United States is so fiercely guarded that when Franklin Roosevelt pushed through Social Security, there was a sizable minority of the country that fought it believing it to be a tracking system prophesied in the Book of Revelation; the so-called “Mark of the Beast” that foretold the coming end-times! It’s a major violation of law to disclose a person’s health information under medical privacy regulations. You can’t record phone conversations unless you disclose the fact beforehand or else you can be charged with wiretapping crimes. In many states, you can’t install hidden cameras when the person has a reasonable expectation of privacy, while in some, you can’t broadcast images of them without their consent. Most Americans don’t like people tracking us unless we’re giving up our privacy to play the newest version of Candy Crush or Farmville, in which case millions of folks are willing to blithely hand over the most intimate details about their lives for a few extra chances at beating level 57.
In contrast, many European nations have lesser privacy laws in some areas, yet far superior privacy laws when it comes to Internet usage, including the EU’s “right to be forgotten” regulations, which are now known as the “right to erasure”. Essentially, you can withdraw consent and force a company to delete the information it has on you.
Even if a constitutional right to privacy were explicitly spelled out in an amendment, how would it look? Would it extend to not having your facial recognition features automatically scanned by software when entering a baseball stadium or subway station? Would it be the right to not have your genetic information sequenced without a warrant? Could it even be done if it wasn’t a unilateral global approach involving cross-treaties between multiple nations? Would it give terrorists or political operatives huge advantages over law enforcement, and if so, how far does that need to go before we consider a trade-off acceptable collateral damage?
Without Significant Legal Reforms, Hiding Personal Details Will Become Increasingly Difficult In An Always-Connected World
I don’t have any answers, just this uneasy feeling in my chest. It’s always there, in the back of my mind. What set it off today was an innocuous interview with White Collar star Matt Bomer. He casually mentioned in a special about an upcoming HBO film he made with Julia Roberts that he had been married for the past three years, sending the Hollywood media machine into a tailspin. It was one thing for Janet Jackson to pull it off a quarter-century ago. It was another for Jang Jin-young, one of the highest paid actresses in Asia, to be able to hide her marriage of a few days before her death of stomach cancer given that she performed the ceremony in the United States. For the star of one of the most popular dramas on television to be able to have it hidden for this long, in 2014, while residing almost entirely in New York and Los Angeles is impressive.
As best I can tell, the mental model responsible for his success in this arena has to do with the fact that Matt hid it in plain site. Major magazines like US Weekly regularly feature pictures of his family and three sons out at the playground or going shopping as do some of the biggest gossip sites on the Internet. Sometimes, the best way to conceal something is to put it out there where it doesn’t draw any attention. People merely assumed they weren’t married, and since they were so nonchalant about it, folks ran with their assumptions, never bothering to ask any questions. (This is the reason it is important to always check your assumptions.)
Part of me is relieved that someone so high profile was able to hide something, still. It means we haven’t, yet, crossed the Rubicon. That won’t always be the case absent explicit laws.
How will the world change when people can no longer keep secrets?
Will there be a general acceptance of things previously taboo as people realize they aren’t alone?
Will there be greater crackdowns on minority groups, who can now be more easily tracked, monitored, and exterminated?
Will violent crimes like murder, assault, and rape continue to fall off a cliff like they have for the past 30 years as it becomes more difficult to get away with evil?
Will it make it easier for people in power to commit evil as they can tamper with the alibi of the innocent?
Will global culture commoditize into a single, homogenizing sameness?
I spend my life looking 3-5 years out in the future, and I can’t see anything but fog. I have no idea how this train ends, nor how it reshapes civilization for good or ill. It makes me uneasy. I can’t prepare if I can’t forecast; I can’t profit if I can’t predict based on probabilities. It feels somewhat akin to being on a roller coaster in the dark where you can’t quite see the next big drop.