From Adam and Eve to Facebook, a history of Privacy

“And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons” (Genesis, 3:7)
Jan Gossart, Adam and Eve, ~1507 (Wikimedia)

Privacy is one of the most urgent needs for humanity. I have learned that from the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis.

Seriously, I will shortly explain how I came to this conclusion. However, before digging into one of the oldest tales in history, I must admit that many people hold almost the opposite opinion regarding privacy. It is quite common to believe that other values might justify compromising our privacy — e.g. guarding our security, improving efficiency or protecting the public interest. However, sometimes it is just our daily habits that are driving us to pay less attention to privacy.

It’s the digital Behemoth’s world

Let’s take for example the recent exploitation of our privacy that was revealed in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The British consulting firm allegedly abused the personal data of up to 200 millions users of Facebook. The private information was used to serve various customers of Cambridge Analytica, including Donald Trump’s campaign for Presidency.

Even after such a shocking revelation, Facebook continued to enjoy growth in the number of users. Manipulation of private information did not cause a massive abandon of other digital Behemoth, like Google, Apple or Amazon.

Let’s put things straight: whether we are obsessed with privacy issues or indifferent towards the constant cybernatic surveillance that surrounds us — we tend to continue using the most significant social network or the most robust search engine and to do that on a daily basis.

In this article we will look closely at the tension between the growing awareness of cases in which privacy is abused; of our legitimate desire to share content, purchase and sell goods, play, research and enjoy all the marvelous opportunities of the world wide web. It is possible that Cryptocurrencies and Blockchain technology is suggesting a smart and practical solution to this tension. We will touch this point later.

First, let me share with you some inspiring ideas about privacy, coming from the fields of religion and philosophy. After all, the digital era is only the most recent chapter of our chronicles of knowledge and we have a lot to learn from history. So let’s return to the very first couple, Adam and Eve. Though their story does not mention Facebook, we can undoubtedly find there (an) Apple.

Oh lord, Give me some privacy

“And the Lord said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Genesis 3:22)
Peter Paul Rubens, Adam and Eve, ~1600 (Wikimedia)

While telling the story of Adam and Eve, the focus usually rests on the original sin or the paradise lost. In this genesis block of humanity, there is indeed a lesson about crime, punishment and shame — but we can also find there an exciting message about privacy.

After the first couple had eaten the fruit of the tree of good and evil and had become more aware and mindful, the immediate consequence was a bit surprising. Adam and Eve’s first reaction was an irresistible urge to hide their genitals. In other words, to keep something for themselves — hidden from the ever watching eye of the Lord. They did it in the best way they could imagine, which was picking up fig leaves from the ground of Eden and putting them on themselves.

So what was the essence of their reaction? Adam and Eve built a distinction between a public sphere and a private, more intimate, circle. In a moment of intuition, they defined the separation between two areas of social existence — each one has its regulations, its own do’s and don’ts, its essential component for a genuinely mindful human being.

A more formal expression to this instinct was later suggested by Aristotle, perhaps the most prominent Greek scholar. Aristotle divided the human living area between the Polis, the city, the arena of citizenship and public affairs; and the private or domestic sphere of the family, the Oikos.

Big brothers and small secrets

Before I lose your attention with these philosophical concepts, let me ask you a direct question: Why should anyone hide anything at all?

If we haven’t done anything wrong, if we didn’t eat the fruit God had forbidden us from eating, didn’t steal and had no connections whatsoever to terrorist groups — why should we resist to someone who watches us from above, whether it is the biblical God, or the digital Big Brothers and their surveillance methods?

Nudist might come up with original answers to these questions, of what should be hidden and from whom. However, also well-dressed people might think that beside some reasonable modesty, there is no reason to hide most of their activities. I think that they are sincerely wrong, and let me explain why.

In an outstanding Ted lecture about the issue of Privacy, the journalist Glenn Greenwald talks precisely about that. When I heard his perspective on the issue, it gave me chills. Greenwald said that:

“There is a very common sentiment that arises in this debate, even among people who are uncomfortable with mass surveillance, which says that there is no real harm that comes from this large-scale invasion because only people who are engaged in bad acts have a reason to want to hide and to care about their privacy… “
“The people who are actually saying that are engaged in a very extreme act of self-deprecation. What they are saying is, ‘I have agreed to make myself such a harmless and unthreatening and uninteresting person that I do not fear having the government know what it is that I am doing.’”

Free market of ideas

Greenwald’s razor-sharp words send me directly to the next step in our modest research about the odyssey of privacy. He is not only explaining why we have a given right to keep some secrets to ourselves, hidden with fig leaves or with more sophisticated techniques — but emphasizes how mass surveillance causes damage to free and original thinking.

This is also the moment to meet an English scholar of the 19th century who dealt precisely with this issue and did it in a brave and inspiring way. This man had an immense influence on our understanding of the importance of individuality, freedom and liberal thinking in general.

“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” (John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty,” 1859)

John Stuart Mill, a political philosopher, economist and also a feminist gives very insightful and substantial answer to the reasonable doubt: Why should we be highly concerned about privacy.

Caricature of Mr John Stuart Mill, 1873 (Wikipedia)

In short, Mill explained that:

  1. Humanity can not advance and flourish unless we will give every member of our society a safe and intimate place to meditate, even about the wildest and weirdest ideas. In other words: privacy is needed to defend free thinking.
  2. However, Mill demands more than escorting our intimate secrets and thoughts. In his extensive writing, he emphasizes why we should also have a grand stage to speak out loud our viewpoints. Furthermore, that is a fundamental interest for all of us, never mind what our appreciation of a specific agenda is. In other words, Mill explains that every woman and man should have their own Hyde Park speakers’ corner. Also, that is true even if they are the only one in the world to hold this viewpoint.

This necessary, yet challenging, logic is perhaps the most cogent argument for individual thinking and freedom of speech. We can never know who will have the most original and genuine idea. Therefore we must give a fair chance to any idea, even if it sounds weird or wrong. We can not live as free or as successful human beings if we neglect these values.

Mill explained why a society that doesn’t nurture everybody’s opinions would lose its potential to grow and flourish. Therefore, society must protect everyone’s private and individual thoughts from intrusive political influence or any other nosy search over one’s thoughts and personal data (giving the prophetic 19th-century scholar some actual context).

Like, like, like, like

These principles, I believe, can be broadened to explain why privacy should be carefully guarded in various frameworks: for someone who is planning political strategy as well as for someone who is writing a sex story.

Privacy is a cornerstone in this structure. Everyone should have a safeguarded circle where an individual can think, imagine, plan and communicate as freely as possible, whether he or she is by themselves or part of a group, at their room or in a social network.

Coming back to Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg’s speakers’ corner could be described as the most effective public stage that was ever created. It is more intense and global than Mill could have ever imagined.

However, at the same time, Facebook and the other major digital corporations exploit our privacy in order to serve their business strategy. As part of the attention economy — in which our mental resources and the time we spend on various websites is measured, maximized and traded — we are no longer users, but products. Our data is collected and assembled into vast chunks of information, that serve various business goals.

Looking at this process through the two principles Mill had defined brings very troubling insights:

  1. Facebook and other digital Behemoth leave us with very little space for free thinking. We are bombarded continuously with incentives to act in a normative manner. We are experiencing what has been defined as echo chambers, where we hear opinions that are similar to ours, while we try to get more likes and speak in a common language that other people will readily accept and choose to share.
  2. While we get this large-scale stage to communicate our ideas on every topic and to billions of people — at the same time we are under terrifying censorship. If any of the political or commercial Big Brothers do not like our views, images or sexual choices — our ideas will be immediately deleted without warning. Also, worst of all, our activities are used to follow us, and to narrow even further our intimate arena for free, imaginative and original thinking.

Fighting the digital dictatorship

All that causes people to become very suspicious of the digital sphere. The tech giants who have built their strength through these methods are continually gaining more power, making it almost impossible to compete with them (and we can “congratulate” Apple and Amazon, which have just hit the symbolic trillion USD market cap).

Yuval Noah Harari, the respected historian and author, has recently published an inspirational article in the “Atlantic” magazine, analyzing how AI and other technological and social transformations make it almost impossible to protect privacy and as a result also defend democratic values. Harari argues that the distribution of data storage and data processing is essential to save us from a digital dictatorship:

“..if you dislike the idea of living in a digital dictatorship or some similarly degraded form of society — then the most important contribution you can make is to find ways to prevent too much data from being concentrated in too few hands, and also find ways to keep distributed data processing more efficient than centralized data processing. These will not be easy tasks. However, achieving them may be the best safeguard of democracy”.
Wiertz Sebastien (Flicker)

The challenge Harari describes — making distributed systems more efficient than the centralized ones — can also lead us to a (relatively) optimistic end to this article. It is reasonable to estimate that there is a growing awareness of the need for a critical change in this arena. Take for example the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). The EU has recently launched these guidelines, which have received some objections but are considered to be the most ambitious effort to protect personal data on the internet.

People are sharing ideas and initiating actions to face the disturbing reality. The community of experts, researchers, journalists, activists, and conscious internet users is expanding. Some platforms and tools enable safer routes to travel to the digital world.

Can cryptocurrencies protect our privacy?

A prominent example is the Blockchain. A detailed description of the promise of more freedom and privacy through distributed ledgers demands another article. For now, here is a brief sketch on how decentralized and encrypted peer-to-peer networks can make communication and value transfers much more secure.

There are a few avant-grade projects which redefine the way we write, read, share and explore content on the web. These projects let users claim ownership of the data they produce and consume, and make sure that no third party will manipulate it. Stand out examples include SteemIt, the social network that rewards writers and readers, and stores all the content in its immutable Blockchain ledger; and Brave, a blockchain based browser, which builds a transparent, less intrusive and more effective system to glance over the internet.

Another aspect of privacy relates to how we use and save our money, whether we are individuals or firms. Here we can find technologies such as Zero-Proof-Knowledge, which was first implemented through the private crypto coin ZCash.

Newer technology is MimbleWimble, which solves some of the problems in zk-SNARKs (the implementation of Zero-Knowledge-Proofs that is used by ZCash and is not fully decentralized, and therefore not fully private). The first projects that translate MimbleWimble into reality are Grin, a community based project that implements this new technology; and BEAM, which suggests an improved version to the challenge. BEAM is a company and a future foundation which are creating a blockchain and a cryptocurrency, based on MimbleWimble.

Such new technologies and innovative tools, like ZCash, BEAM, Grin and many more, give an opportunity to break up the digital chains that are limiting us today. There is a good reason to believe that discussing, learning and developing better practices for the world wide web can initiate an era of privacy and freedom on a scale that humanity has never yet experienced.