With all of the ‘exploits’ of the NSA and their brethren agencies concerning the “intelligence data” gathering process in the news recently, I wanted to expand on a post I wrote some time ago (here) on the “Perception of Privacy” – although that post was more narrowly focused on privacy as it relates to photography. Without regard to the legality or morality of Edward Snowden’s activities [or similar activities that have shed light on what our collective governments have been doing in terms of ‘snooping’] (I’ll reserve that for a future post) – I want to address the notion of ‘privacy’ in our changing world.
Privacy ultimately implies a separation of thought, speech, activity or other action from the larger world around one. If one reviews your Greek history, the Cynics (one of the three Schools that came from Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) were perhaps the best example of way of life in which there was no privacy. They practiced living with complete “shameless behavior” and did everything in public – not to shock, but to rather exercise indifference to the societal norms and rise above them. However, most cultures have evolved into a balance of public and private activity – although with a substantial variation on what is acceptable “public behavior.”
The issue at hand today with our beliefs around privacy of communications (whether voice or data) is around our “expectation of privacy.” If we post a public comment on Facebook or the New York Times web site, we have no reasonable expectation of privacy and therefore are not worried if this communication is shared or observed by others. However, if we send an e-mail to single recipient, or converse on the telephone with a family member, we have a reasonable expectation of privacy – and would be upset if this communication was shared with others (such as government agencies, etc.) – when there is no pre-existing reason for such a violation of privacy.
The big difference – and the root of much of the dialog currently regarding online privacy – is that various companies (mostly ad based or other big data firms), or nation-state governmental agencies have taken the position that extracting and storing virtually all possible data from communications within their reach is ethical, potentially useful, and profitable. From a governance pov the position is that if we have all this data on hand, then we can review it if we come to believe that person X has potentially violated some standard of behavior and is therefore deserving of surveillance. The commercial position (Big Data) is that the more we know about everyone, the better we can target commercial opportunities – or perhaps protect certain company’s profits [health/life insurance firms, corporate employment, financial institutions will all argue in favor of knowing everything possible about their potential customers].
There are a few problems with this philosophy: one of which is just practical and economic – the vast amount of storage capacity that unfocused data gathering requires. Eventually someone has to pay for all those hard disks… with one of the latest methodologies that has been revealed (harvesting of data from ‘leaky apps’ on mobile devices) generating terabytes of data per hour just from this type of activity – the scope of this data storage dilemma is becoming quite large. When you fill out one of those annoying forms when you sign up to WhatsApp (for example), are you aware that your e-mail address, cellphone number, and potentially your entire contact list is shared and propagated to a huge slew of firms outside of WhatsApp? Including Washington, D.C.? Everything from Angry Birds to top newspaper and television firms that use apps for mobile connectivity have been shown to basically have no safeguards whatsoever in terms of subscriber data privacy.
This is a new and relatively unknown issue for courts, philosophers, commercial firms, governments and their subject citizens to wrestle with. It will take some time for a collective rationale to emerge – and whatever balance between real privacy (almost impossible to have in a highly connected society) and public forum is achieved will vary widely from culture to culture. I’ll continue to observe and post on this topic, but comments are welcome.