The end of privacy

This article appears in ‘The Tip-Off’ issue of MUSEUM magazine.

There’s an old Russian joke of dubious origin about surveillance, told during the height of the Soviet Union. A frightened man visits the KGB and tells them that his talking parrot has disappeared. “That’s not the kind of case we deal with,” the KGB agent tells him. “Go to the police.”

“Of course I know I should go to the police,” the man replies. “I’m just here to formally tell you that I disagree with the parrot.”

This resonates in 2016, when the West, having supposedly triumphed over authoritarianism with the fall of the Berlin Wall, succumbs to the same kind of surveillance paranoia in an age where violence and radicalism intersect freely with our online selves. The delineation of the public and private spheres and our right to select where we express ourselves has evaporated, and there is no longer a total expectation that our private activity should remain so in the face of collective or state interest.

But it would be wrong to say that we gave up our privacy unwillingly. Our lives now are the culmination of vast quantities of data we have willingly given to the public. This runs deeper than any narrow thoughts about millennial narcissism and oddly puritanical codes of social media self-censorship. Increasingly, we gravitate towards a world where the notion of information that we willingly choose to keep to ourselves seems more and more alien.

The English word ‘privacy’ is, according to some linguists, an untranslatable lexeme. Though other languages and cultures understand and entrench legalist definitions for privacy that hew closely to our own, very few understand it as a fully, recognisably ideological position. Could you give me some privacy, you might say to a friend, meaning that you desire to be left alone to your own, personal affairs temporarily. Many cultures have never understood this simple idea as being on the same continuum as privacy from state, corporate or social powers.

In Russian, the English word privacy is approximated by a complex description using the words for ‘solitude’ and ‘secrecy’. In Indonesian, they say Privasi; in Italian, la privacy. In China, it is rendered as 隐私/隱私, which translates to “concealing that which is personal”. The invention is distinctly Anglocentric, conceived under liberal polities in England and the United States and spread across the world first through colonial projects and then through capitalist globalisation. There is some consensus that it entails an act of concealing or hiding. It implies that it is active: we deliberately and consciously hide things from people.

Privacy, as we commonly understand it, is not much more than 150 years old. It was once a province entirely for the rich, who could afford to sequester their affairs away into secrecy, living in relative safety away from the masses. Proletarian homes, until the Industrial Revolution, were communal, with private zones ultimately reserved for sex and (occasionally) defecation.

Fundamentally, privacy was for finance. John Adams, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, once wrote that he was “under no moral or other Obligation” to publish his financial matters publicly. The notion that people may live personal lives to which nobody had the right to intrude or even know only became widespread as liberal economics permitted people to construct their own private spaces and existences with the money they had earned.

The Harvard Law Review in 1890, at the height of the Gilded Age, acknowledged the growing desire among the average person for a private life was more than just a product of a new embarrassment, but an actual, enshrined right. “The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilisation, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world,” it announced. It was an increasingly complex, technologised world which allowed people to achieve by themselves, rather than as a collective, which pushed humanity over the edge. As it became more and more possible to peel back the artifice of someone else’s life — be it with the telephone, or the printing press, or whatever — it became more and more necessary to lock certain parts of your existence away at your own discretion.

And now, as that individualist liberalism faces challenges both from government authoritarianism and corporate surveillance overreach, we find what we once understood as integral to maintaining this tenuous, razor-thread balance of individual lives for the collective good evaporating into irrelevance. Generation Y, who have been raised in a world where it is both technologically feasible and socially advantageous to beam their personal thoughts into the public sphere, clearly could not care less about an ideology rooted in households and the kind of community you can reach out and touch. Who can blame them?

The fundamental horror at the core of dystopian fiction of the twentieth century is ultimately the loss of privacy. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four imagined a world where the government is omniscient — not only knowing exactly what you are doing at any time, but also having a sense of what you are feeling and possessing a means to control it. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale posited a theocratic government who decimated privacy out of a fear of terrorism; electing to rob women of all agency.

For these writers, an atomised, private existence was the core of liberty. Take that away, and you don’t mean anything. You are nothing without self-described boundaries on your public expression. The notion of a world where information flowed freely but was constantly scrutinised by outside forces would for them represent a manifestation of the panopticon: a theoretical prison in which the inmates cannot see the guards monitoring them, and so must assume that they are always being monitored.

Paul McMullan, a veteran of the muckraking hydra of British tabloids, spoke in front of the Leveson inquiry — an investigation into potentially criminal invasions of privacy endemic in some corners of British media — in 2011. “Privacy is for paedos,” he told them. “In 21 years of invading people’s privacy I’ve never found anybody doing any good.” The culture of surveillance, he believed, was justified by the fact that information that the public wanted was often under lock and key. Public interest trumped privacy. If there was a tension between what the public demanded to know and what an individual wanted to keep secret, the former must always triumph.

Some government bodies, like the European Union, have attempted to stem the tide through legislation. The same entities who believe that total state omniscience is the only path to safety from terrorism also argue that companies like Google ought to have some restrictions ensuring that individuals can maintain the kind of private lives they desire. Ultimately, these are fools errands. By being online, one resigns themselves to becoming part of a public community which has no walls.

Continental philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari saw the writing on the wall decades before the Internet. For them, postmodern existence meant that we are always immediately present. Why differentiate between public and private behaviour, they argued, when mass media ensures that we are always here, there and everywhere? When something happens, the Internet ensures that we are there. And when we blog, or comment on that CNN video, or tweet a reply, or film a video response, the rest of the world is here with us too.

In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, stood in front of a crowd in San Francisco and announced the end of privacy.

He told his interviewer, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington, that if he had the chance to make Facebook again and erase his original mistakes, his vision would have been far bolder: he would have ensured that all information shared to the network was public by default. “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people,” he said. “That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

This, apparently, extends beyond the boundaries of merely status updates and photos from Thailand holidays. In 2014, Facebook faced wide backlash after announcing that it had conducted a massive experiment on 670,000 users, in which they deliberately curated the content shown to users in order to manipulate their emotional responses — making them feel good or bad depending on what they saw.

Soon, the very objects that we consider most personal and physical — the bathroom scales with which we measure our weight, the toothbrush we use to brush our teeth, and so on — will be connected to the Internet and collecting and collating data. We will know our precise health state, and so will our doctor. So will our friends, via social media. They may know our emotions, precisely. For better or worse, we are engendering a culture in which information is cheap and is passed freely. Even experiences that are private because of their phenomenology — eating, sleeping, dreaming — will become public because of how we document them.

This is the final frontier for privacy. It is no longer a matter of our control over exactly how much of our personal life we deign to share with the public — it is a matter of precisely how much of our internal existence is taken from us. If someone can manipulate our thought and emotion based on a stratum of data we willingly and unwillingly contributed to, then there is no real sense of public and private any longer — only an escalating series of intrusions.

Privacy is dead. But we can’t say that Facebook or the government killed it. We cannot even say that we gave it away willingly. In the future, they may look back on this 150 year period as an unusual one in human history, when we for a fleeting moment decided that some things should be kept to ourselves, and that we could lock some of our lives away from the rest of the world.