Googling “the end of privacy” (with the quotation marks) produces 809,000 results, plus a log of a search that I do not entirely trust Google to delete. Nearly every result (among a limited sample) worries about the implications of technology, from Facebook’s graph search to the constant threat of recording of Google glass. Maintaining dual lives becomes difficult: search engines and advertising cookies can track your browsing habits even where you do not log in, and social networks often make it difficult to separate what is visible to various audiences.
First, what is privacy? The term derives from separation, and most dictionaries will define it as the ability to be free from observation or attention. But that definition is inadequate, for by it privacy remains easy: abstain. Remain apart from society, from technology. The internet speeds communication, but what is never disclosed is never communicated. No, a demand for privacy is not a demand for secrecy but for control, the ability to selectively disclose information without fear of it escaping its intended sphere—the ability to disclose on Facebook a lifestyle that you do not wish prospective employers to see, or the ability to record your thoughts without fear of their being caught in a government dragnet. Perfect privacy is perfect control over the disclosure of information, the ability to reveal it to the precise subset of the world’s population you desire to see it.
While the end of privacy is much discussed, few seem to remember that it also had a beginning. The vast majority of humans lived nearly their entire life within an area of a few miles, usually in a small, discrete community. In the medieval village everyone knows everyone else, and word of mouth could spread as quickly across a community as twitter can across today’s geographically disparate communities. In such a community no public action is private (as any observer has direct communication with all other community members), and the privacy of group-secret action depends on the discretion of those involved. Privacy as we value it cannot exist.
While there have always been travelers and the like who were largely exempt from the privacy constraints of the enclosed community, the first factor to change this situation for large groups of people was urbanization. Roman Londonium held 50000 people within less than a square mile of land; more people than you would meet in a lifetime within ten minutes’ walk. This breaks the universal pairwise communication possible in the village, and it becomes much easier to live a life, even a fairly public one, hidden from some part of one’s daily acquaintances. But urbanization progressed slowly, first accounting for half the world’s population this century.
The true rise of privacy is tied to the rise of the automobile: while the city increases privacy by moving more people within walking distance, the automobile increases privacy by expanding the range of daily life. Convenient travel created the possibility of compartmentalization: your neighbors need not know your coworkers, nor your coworkers your leisure associates. And with this separation came the possibility of the double life: stay out of the newspaper and the police blotter and your employer need never know what you do on weekends. And this, it seems to me, is the standard of privacy the internet fails.
Now the internet does present some new challenges, particularly with respect to persistence and lack of context. What sets the new age of low privacy apart from the old is the ability to collect partial information about total strangers, and in particular what governments are likely to attempt to do with such information, and these issues bear more thought. But it is worth asking, I think, whether the rise of privacy was a good thing in the first place. Privacy is only important if you have something to hide, and at least in general one should not.1 I keep access to my Facebook information somewhat restricted (I think), but I worry little: the story it tells is not one I see a need to hide, whether from strangers, schools, or employers. The worries over privacy largely come back to integrity or authenticity: if you are proud of your life, show it. If you are not, change it.
With a major exception for information such as authentication tokens (passwords, credit card numbers, etc.). But these do not factor into a privacy debate, as they should never be even partially public.↩