Privacy: Looking for Solitude in the Global Village

Novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said, “all human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.” When I first came upon this thought, I found myself agreeing with his premise that three separate entities essentially contribute to a cohesive whole. It makes complete sense from a logical perspective that these divisions exist. Everyone has a public life where individual behavior and interactions are committed in the public sphere; everyone also has a private life where associations include a smaller circle of people and the build up of greater trust. Finally everyone, whether we want to admit it or not, has a secret life where we decide that some thoughts or actions cannot be shared with others and are held internally. However, after reading more about privacy and what exactly privacy is my original stance has changed.

Privacy slowly ceases to exist in our modern world whether it is paparazzi attacking celebrities or everyday individuals losing their voice over what information can and cannot be accessed by major corporations and governments. As people become even more connected through social media shares, likes, comments, tweets, and posts the control of personal information becomes impossible to maintain. Once information is uploaded on a social media site it remains available for anyone to see and use for whatever purpose.

Companies such as Facebook or Google that retain large amounts of data about their users are looked upon by consumer companies as having access to the greatest resource available. The information becomes separated from the person, dehumanized and solely regarded as data that will ultimately be used to generate greater sales and profits. Knowing this intrusion committed by private companies, how can one claim that privacy is upheld when companies actively mine for our personal information without our clear consent on the matter? It is not only companies that are intruding into (what should be) our online privacy, but also the government. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know now that the NSA even spied on the Internet use of U.S. citizens through government created applications, such as Prism. Even if we want to believe that privacy does exists and that we can have these perfect separations between our public, private, and secret lives, it is not realistic.

Our secrets no longer solely belong to us; our privacy is constantly being invaded, noted, collected, analyzed, and distributed. Everything we do specifically on social media enters the public arena. Since information sharing, and by extension collection, is inevitable, the next question is if this means that constant sharing is “bad”? The ethical principle that can be applied to this privacy matter is Aristotle’s Golden Mean, which emphasizes how the virtue or ethical behavior resides in the mean between two extremes. In this situation, one extreme would be not sharing or researching anything in fear of being constantly watched and judged by some type of larger institution. This end of the spectrum harms curiosity and prevents people from enjoying the benefits from living in a global world. There is no denying that having a conversation with someone living across the world is revolutionary. In fact, people should participate in this type of interaction, but there needs to be a line drawn between public comments and sharing personal information so freely.

The other end of the spectrum is too willingly giving up private information to others in a click of a button and not thinking twice about it. Having new technology comes with a greater responsibility. We have some initial control of what information goes online and becomes accessible to the public. Instead of devaluing privacy, we need to relinquish this control and proceed with caution before privacy becomes extinct. Aristotle’s Golden Mean brings us to a middle ground, which allows people to realize their inherent right to privacy both online and in person. This balancing point between the two extremes encourages information sharing and interacting, yet it also upholds the value of privacy and has the potential to reintroduce back into our society.

Upholding the right to privacy is essential in maintaining a free and functional society. According to the principle of Utilitarianism, which deems ethical behavior as doing what is good for the greatest number of people, valuing privacy benefits the majority of people in society. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say privacy no longer existed. The harm that this would cause has many implications. First, the opportunity to grow unique personalities and diverse beliefs and attitudes would also not exist because privacy is what gives us the environment to be separated from the opinions of others. Second, the death of privacy means the death to individualism and freedom. If people are not able to keep their own thoughts, searches, experiences from the greedy hands of other institutions then this creates a metaphoric prison that squashes true democracy. In other words, not having a private life can influence how people act and behave.

The Rolling Stones expressed the need for privacy through singing “I’m free to do what I want any old time….I’m free to choose what I please any old time…I’m free any old time to get what I want, yes I am,” essentially this freedom is granted through privacy. Third, privacy gives people power over their own lives and choice over what others can know. When this right is taken away, too much personal information enters the sphere that should not causing people to be subject to greater harm by others. Through Utilitarianism it is clear that encouraging privacy protects the interests and well-being of the greater public. It also is important to note that privacy should not be thought of as this great service provided by some higher power. Rather privacy is given to each and every one of us.

Some people may argue that if I do not have anything to hide why do I even need to bother using my privacy? That mentality is extremely dangerous because if we give up an ounce of our control over information that we want to be kept private, then this opens the gate to other parties taking advantage of our total right and need to privacy. For society to function properly, it is essential for people to exercise their right and not allow having a clean record to interfere with an innate human entity. Privacy is akin to human dignity, respect, care, and friendship; meaning that it is not a matter of whether we are given it, but a matter of how we are able to enforce it and protect it when outside forces seek to destroy privacy.

It is extremely hard to continuously uphold privacy in all situations. Take journalism for example. There are numerous examples when journalists have to decide between the public’s right to know, need to know, and want to know. The public’s right to know mainly is associated with the legal world. The two important distinctions are between the need and want to know. The need to know is when this information cannot be withheld from the public; it is absolutely necessary for people to have access to this information. Whereas the want to know is when information is not necessary, but would be otherwise satisfying to know. To figure out when to use privacy, John Rawls suggested using the Veil of Ignorance, which describes “going under the veil” to essentially get rid of any underlying biases and come to a neutral playing field when making a decision about whether or not to withhold or write certain information in a story.

Although the Veil of Ignorance in theory would be a perfect way to come to an ethical decision since everyone is equal and does not have a position or role under the veil. This suggestion is completely irrational because we do not live in a world where people can simply rid themselves of their subconscious biases even if they are supposedly under the veil. Privacy needs a principle that is stronger if it is truly going to be upheld and enforced. Applying this principle would still cause people to make privacy decisions through a self-interested perspective. Companies would go under the veil and still say that they need to collect our information to know their consumer better. Journalists might determine that running certain information in a story is essential. If our privacy rests on applying this principle, then privacy will never be upheld in the way it should and the only thing left would be “me myself and I [because] that’s all I [or we] got in the end” since our private lives will eventually be solely public matters.