A blog by Barry Edelson

The End of Privacy as We Know It


Among the many illusions that sustain the human animal, the belief that life was better in the past is one of the most pervasive and debilitating. No matter that a near-universal fondness for the mythical "Golden Age" is easily disputable by evidence. Its flimsiness seems in inverse relation to its enduring popularity.

It is therefore with considerable reluctance, and a modicum of shame, that many of us who grew up before the present era of ubiquitous electronic communications often yearn for what we perceive to have been "a simpler time". In this particular variant of the golden age, we did not risk having our identities stolen every time we bought something, we could leave home or the office without being bothered, and we were not continually accosted by the opinions, rants and trivial thoughts of innumerable uninteresting strangers. The common denominator among all the qualities that endear us to the prelapsarian period of terrestrial telephone lines and cash transactions is privacy. To most people of a certain age, the very notion of voluntarily posting personal information about oneself on the Internet for all the the world to see is not only an act of surpassing vanity, but an incomprehensible surrender of one's privacy.

It is clear that no such compunction restricts younger people from fully participating in the brave new Facebook world. The widespread dissolution of what are now considered quaint standards of privacy means that it is also abundantly clear that, as in the case of all golden age myths, there is no going back. Whether or not we wish to benefit from the advantages provided by the world wide web and the proliferating gadgets which render it increasingly accessible, every one of us is stuck with the consequences of living in a society in which the mechanics of communication operate in a very different fashion from the one we were once accustomed to.

It is difficult not to be of two minds about this, and most of us are. When EZ Pass became available nearly a generation ago, for example, those who refused to get one on the grounds that it represented an unacceptable infringement on personal freedom sounded paranoid and foolish. To this day, there is an undeniable sense of gratification when we pass all of those coin-dropping luddites waiting in long lines at the toll plaza, as we, the electronically enlightened, sail through the uncrowded automated gates. Nonetheless, there is daily evidence at the entrance to our bridges and tunnels that many people still consider a shorter wait too small a benefit when weighed even against the exceedingly tiny risk that the government may be tracking our whereabouts.

Today, that peculiar reluctance to take advantage of an essentially free service seems not quite as demented as it did in the early 1990s. In the post-9/11, Patriot Act America, the technological wonder of being able to find directions to every location on the mapped portions of the planet is tempered by the realization that there is nowhere to hide, not only from our government but from our enemies, as well. Who among us did not feel the hair stand up on the back of our necks the first time we saw the roof of our house on Google Earth? The dark underside of being able to find virtually anything on line is that we can easily be found, too.

Those who never felt that momentary anxiety about being seen by unwanted eyes are either too young to remember it being any other way, or too seduced by the personal convenience offered by the electronic era to contemplate its effects. The generation now in its 20s or younger have largely come of age within a social framework in which appearing naked before the world, figuratively and in many cases literally, is simply the way we live. They do not remember the Cold War and the chilling reality of hundreds of millions of the world's people living under the intrusive watchfulness of repressive regimes. They do not feel the loss of privacy because they never experienced it, and are (so far) largely immune from its effects. Even the few who have been denied a college acceptance or a job because of a nude and/or drunken photo of themselves posted on their web page, or stupidly emailed to a "friend", probably don't know that that is the reason they were turned down. Even if they did, they would still be unlikely to shun the electronic world that has been their home. It does no good for the aging population to dismiss the social-networking juggernaut as so much youthful narcissism. Its hundreds of millions of happy practitioners would no doubt reject the skepticism of their parents' and grandparents' generations as so much old-fashioned ignorance, much as today's parents scoffed at their elders' disdain for rock and roll, premarital sex and casual drug use.

Obscurity is no longer
a guarantee of privacy.

There is something to that argument, too, of course. The Internet is a tool for living, and it contains within it all of the good and bad that human nature brings to bear on all the activities of our species. It is a wonderful thing to buy something from an online retailer that one cannot find in a local store, to find a mate whom one would never otherwise have been able to meet, to track down information in a few minutes that would have previously taken hours of research at the library. On the other hand, it is a dangerous thing to put such a potent weapon of communications in the hands of extremists and terrorists. For every website hoping to raise money to wipe out a disease or find homes for lost dogs, there is another advocating the overthrow of the American government or jihad against the infidels. Measured appeals for skepticism have always shared the marketplace of ideas with calls to violent rebellion, and reasoned argument has always done battle with demagoguery. In that sense, little has changed. But the unprecedented speed with which information, both the incredible but true and credible but false, travels the globe has the feel of a game-changer. And the nearly instantaneous damage it can cause to a company's fortunes or to an individual's reputation cries out for a new a set of rules about how we interact with our fellow creatures.

Unfortunately, the advent of electronic communications happens to have come at the end of a prolonged period in which social protocols have been under attack. We have moved in a few short decades from a society in which a man would not have been caught dead indoors with a hat on his head to one in which a "wardrobe malfunction" is broadcast instantly across the continents. This is not to suggest that arbitrary rules of behavior and mindless obedience to authority ought not to be challenged and undermined. But we have lurched into a social construct in which no broadly agreed upon rules have been adopted, whether imposed or arising naturally. Onto this unsettled social environment we have grafted an online free-for-all, a sphere in which "flaming" and slander go largely unpunished, and "memes" of highly questionably veracity are taken as gospel by a public ravenous for signs of governmental or corporate excess. It's a lovely idea to be able to post one's ideas online where anyone on Earth may read them, but we must be under no illusion that we also are providing room in cyberspace for every reprobate to do the same, while respecting no arbiters of public opinion in government, academia, the media or any other arena, to distinguish between the two.

To some, this glorious anarchy probably appears to be a bulwark against tyranny. Of course, many of those now railing against Big Brother use the Internet to organize their meetings and lines of attack, apparently oblivious to the irony that they are employing the very same intrusive electronic eye that causes them to go apoplectic in the first place. Moreover, many of them have undoubtedly also shopped online, or tapped the PIN of their debit cards into retailers' keypads far and wide. Nonetheless, perhaps the sheer volume of unfiltered speech hurtling through cyberspace is indeed a protection against those who would grasp too much power for themselves. There is always at the ready a veritable army of doubters keen to bring them down.

Indeed, it is difficult to summon much sympathy for vain politicians and self-promoters of every stripe who fall victim to the Internet's awesome power to wreck reputations. The recent example of Tiger Woods, however, should give us pause to realize that violating the rights of one victim is a threat to the rights of us all. As is typical in such imagined falls from grace, the free media pass once given to Woods has now been turned into a witch hunt. He has been the recipient of endless unsolicited advice about how he bungled the public relations part of his troubles, about what he should have done to contain the damage, and so. But in a society in which few standards of conduct remain, why are these rules sacrosanct? Where is it written that he must give a confessional interview on a major television network before he returns to competitive play? To strike a blow for privacy, the very best thing Woods can do is never, ever make any public statement about his private life. The only person to whom he owes any explanation or apology is his wife. Yes, he profited hugely from the image of self-discipline and uprightness that was happily disseminated by sponsors and advertisers. On the other hand, no fan ever came to watch Woods play golf because he was a good family man. They came to see him hit a ball from an impossible lie to within 12 inches of the cup, or to sink a long putt on the 72nd hold to win a tournament. He didn't become famous because of his family, and his fame shouldn't depend on it.

This writer has never been a fan of Tiger Woods, as explained in an earlier essay about the excessive worship by his fans and the sports media that was supposed to cover his career with impartiality. But those who live in blissful obscurity, and want it to stay that way, should be rooting hard for Woods' privacy. At one time, it would have been safe to watch from the sidelines as a famous person's life and reputation collapsed before our eyes, knowing that such a fate was reserved for the chosen few. Like it or not, we no longer live in an era in which obscurity is a guarantee of privacy. Even if we haven't posted any sexually suggestive photos from spring break or sent any intemperate emails, a massive amount of information about us is available to anyone who wants to find it. The famous cartoon at the top of this page was published in 1993, an electronic eon ago; today, everyone knows if you're a dog, whether you confess it or not. Moreover, anyone can invent something scurrilous about you at any time and present it as fact, sending it to the world — anonymously — at the speed of light. Good luck trying to get that genie back in the bottle.

January 3, 2010
Cartoon copyright by Peter Steiner and The New Yorker

Go to top of page

Return to home pageSend an e-mail

All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.