In the digital era, it’s not only government agencies and Silicon Valley companies spying on us or attempting to monetize our data — it’s also our smart TVs and our futuristic cars. And, once the Internet of Things gets fully connected, you can finally say goodbye to privacy, as just about any device will have the ability to eavesdrop on our conversations and report data in real-time. Privacy, once a right, is now not even a social norm.
In many ways, the end of the age of privacy bears a resemblance to the passing of another great value — chivalry. We all claim to mourn the passing of chivalry — and perhaps at no time more than during the run-up to Valentine’s Day — but consider what chivalry gave us: a patriarchal, hierarchical and class-based society that was literally medieval. Chivalry may have given us honor, nobility and courtly graces, but it also gave us income disparity, gender-specific roles, and a male-dominated boardroom. In short, society outgrew chivalry — just like society is about to outgrow traditional notions of privacy.
The way we think about privacy today is influenced greatly by the classic paper on the right to privacy, written by Warren and Brandeis for Harvard Law Review back in 1890. The paper focused on the ills of a modern media society — gossip, slander and “unauthorized circulation of portraits” — and sought to redress these by defining privacy in common sense terms as “the right to be let alone.”
Spend just a few minutes on today’s Internet, though, and you'll realize that this 125-year-old notion of privacy is already an anachronism. Our accounts are hacked, our photos are uploaded for all to see, our medical records are open secrets and our intimate dealings and emails are “proclaimed from the house-tops.” Instead of wanting to be “let alone,” we now want to be part of communities and networks. To top it all off, “pieces of personal information are not only social currency but also more or less the basis for the entire world of online commerce.”
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However, there’s no need to mourn the passing of the age of privacy. First of all, realize that having too much privacy may actually be just as dangerous as having too little privacy. Think of privacy as existing on a continuum between two extremes: “openness” and “secrecy.” In a 2013 article for MIT Technology Review, Silicon Valley critic Evgeny Morozov acknowledged that the workings of a democracy are such that some information and data is actually critical for technocrats and governments to function. With too much privacy, a society tends towards “secrecy,” and that’s no good for anyone.
The reason why the digital era has resulted in an astonishing erosion of privacy is that open, networked connected societies tend to develop faster. The closed off ones don’t innovate and grow their economies (think North Korea). From that perspective, too much privacy is actually a net drag on innovation. And big data, if anything, is hyper-accelerating this shift in how we think about sharing our data because it is eroding our privacy in two key areas that were once verboten: health information and financial information.
People surrendering their privacy can be empowering and a net positive. Take health care, for example. Even a decade ago, one’s health data was considered deeply personal, something that you’d only share with a trusted doctor. Now, that data is being shared 24/7 with sensors and online bots and being used to keep you healthier. A whole new generation of wearables will fundamentally change the way we think about health data, especially with whom we are willing to share it.
For that reason, attempts to regain privacy rights in the digital era at times appear to be a nostalgic grab for an earlier, analog era when privacy mattered so much more. In the analog era, privacy intrusions happened rarely, if ever; in the digital era, they happen daily. Data Privacy Day on January 28? Please, give me a break. We would do just as well to rename Valentine’s Day “National Day of Chivalry” and expect that it would bring back chivalry from the Middle Ages.
As Morozov points out, if we’re really serious about more privacy, we’re going about it all wrong. Just passing more laws or establishing another “pseudo-holiday” won’t work. We can’t even agree on when, how or by whom we should be informed when we’ve been hacked. Without a broad, sweeping set of data privacy laws, the concept of privacy will continue to undergo a re-think.
If there’s a reason why the concept of privacy in the digital era is so vexing, it’s because we are undergoing a massive sea change in how we think about our analog-based value system. For that reason, we’re tempted to view all intrusions on our privacy as merely an “aberration” — something that can be reversed with just the right set of laws.
The strangeness of talking about protecting our privacy from cars or TVs is probably what it felt like when the friendly neighborhood knight stopped doting on women sometime during the Late Middle Ages. It was shocking and disturbing when a knight no longer held out a chair for a damsel in distress. The first knights who began to challenge the sanity of going off on Crusades to defend Christianity probably sounded like heretics. But, ultimately, this evolution in social norms led to rapid innovation of a patriarchal, hierarchical and gender-specific society.
We live in an era when everyone gets hacked, any post on social media might end up somewhere else, the government will spy on us (no matter what it says), and all of our personal records could end up in the wrong hands. Privacy may not have died in 2014, but it sure seems like it’s on life support. And, with the Internet of Things, we’re just getting started. A generation from now, the fact that we had any privacy will seem quaint, if not distinctly medieval.