As Americans, there’s an inherent belief that we have a right to privacy. We live a country where the foundation of “we the people” is built on protections from personal intrusion by not only the government, but the people themselves. The fourth amendment declares privacy as:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
As the world has moved toward being more connected—and the totality of our “persons, houses, paper, and effects” have turned digital, become more fragmented, and less consolidated—the traditional notion of privacy has been thrown into turmoil.
In order to advance as a society, we need to embrace the new normal — the intersection of technology and global connectedness; definitions of self and publicity; safety and liberty. It’s clear that if we’re to evolve, so too must the notion of privacy, and no recent development has made this need more apparent than emergence of the Internet and social media.
The Internet, Social Media, and Their Effects on Privacy
Long before MySpace and Facebook ever hit the web, privacy norms were already being challenged through the use of Internet chat rooms, message boards, and instant messaging — the first digital channels for projecting ourselves into the digital ether. These interactions, at first, were inherently reciprocal by nature, acting simply as a medium for communication: one person sends or posts a message, another responds, and so on.
The advent of social media, however, brought the next wave of evolution crashing down on the shores of privacy, eroding what was once a fairly straight forward understanding of what it meant.
Privacy was physical in nature. Now? Well, it’s not quite that simple.
1. the state or condition of being free from being observed or disturbed by other people.
2. the state of being free from public attention.
Social media shifted the paradigm towards unsolicited connections—people were now sharing personal moments with the world. Whether or not somebody chooses to interact with these moments, they exist—a snapshot in time that tells people something about themselves.
It could be about their mood or feelings.
It might tell you where they are or what they’re doing.
It could be a complaint or an observation. Inspiring or demoralizing.
Regardless of the contents, people were now voluntarily providing a window into their lives, and becoming alarmed when the wrong people peer in.
Like it is in society, each person has a unique view and understanding of privacy as it exists on the Internet. Groups like #gamergate and Anonymous are digital vigilantes of privacy, deciding who’s worthy of it; the US government often uses privacy’s abstract nature as a tool for infringing upon it; startups and businesses see privacy as transactional in nature—and stuck in the middle are the people who just wanted to share a video of their toddler’s first steps with their family.
Privacy & Responsibility
Wrapped up in the tangles of social media and privacy is the notion of responsibility. There is no law that requires citizens to voluntarily share the intimate details of their lives. When people choose to voluntarily post something to social media, they’re making an implied declaration about the privacy of that information—sharing something with a group of individuals (read: the public), by definition, prohibits that content from being private. Privacy, in its truest sense, exists simply within the confines of yourself.
When people lack the understanding or awareness surrounding the consequences of their actions, and fail to utilize the safeguards put in place to prevent widespread dissemination of personal, intimate, and identifying information, it distorts their responsibility. In this day and age, it’s no secret as to the devastating effects that can occur when an errant text message or Facebook post, intended for a single individual or small group, spreads beyond the bounds of those confines. Yet, the onus is often redirected towards the enablers of such irresponsibility: the Facebooks and Googles of the world.
The websites and apps we interact with all offer a degree of privacy controls, but it’s no substitute for the judgment of an individual as to whether they want something to remain private or not—privacy evaporates once a thought leaves a person’s head and is realized into the public collective.
So if something can no longer truly be private once it’s actualized, how can we maintain any semblance of it?
By expanding our view of what privacy entails.
The New Normal
Technology and societal progress cannot advance without an evolution of our stance on privacy. In fact, these forces are already in motion, and will continue forging ahead whether we’re prepared to change or not. Perhaps this evolution will come quietly, passively, occurring simply by virtue of the passing of time. Perhaps it will come begrudgingly, conceived amongst protest, dissent, and bitter compromise.
But it will come.
The ease with which we manage this change relies on a plethora of complicated and problematic factors:
- Our elected officials need to understand the implications of privacy in the digital age, and act swiftly to alter our laws in a way that not only grasps the nuanced intricacies of the issue, but encompasses the flexibility required to grow with our collective understanding of it. While the first amendment protects a person’s right to say and express the things they think, the question now is whether or not the fourth protects the privacy of those thoughts.
- Businesses need to create better safeguards, on the front- and back-end to educate and shield against misconceptions and external threats. They need to accept responsibility for the information they’ve been entrusted with, and act transparently in their handling and administration of it.
- Most importantly, we need to become comfortable with the new normal of what privacy means to our every day lives. We need to accept responsibility for, and be aware of, the ramifications of our actions. We need to evolve our understanding of what it means to participate in a digitally connected society, while reconciling our inherent need to detach from it.
The world where our most intimate secrets and private moments exist only within the walls of our homes, and ourselves, is gone. Visions of a more connected world, with smarter devices, artificial intelligence, and seamless automation are impossible without relinquishing our traditional perception of privacy.
We are a country mired in convenience, and convenience has an assured trajectory—one that requires the world to know more about us.