Featured Stories

Why Do We Think It’s Okay to Invade Strangers’ Privacy?

A Twitter thread, an airplane romance, and the value of anonymity

Colin Horgan
Jul 12, 2018 · 6 min read

Last week, Rosey Blair, a writer and self-described “drama queen deep in the heart of Texas,” boarded a plane and began a Twitter thread that changed her life — and the lives of the two people sitting in front of her. Rosey and her boyfriend asked a woman to switch seats so they could sit together. “We made a joke that maybe her new seat partner would be the love of her life,” she wrote. Then, it actually happened.

As it unfolded, Blair began posting a series of tweets and photos about how the woman struck up a conversation with her seatmate, how they appeared to be flirting, and even snippets of their conversation. The thread collected hundreds of thousands of likes, comments, and retweets, and it quickly catapulted Blair, her boyfriend, and the man, Euan Holden — since nicknamed #planebae — into quasi-stardom.

But not the woman who changed seats.

In a (recently deleted) follow-up tweet video after her thread went viral, Blair and her boyfriend briefly addressed the status of the as-yet-unknown woman.

“So, we don’t have the woman’s permish yet, so — ”

“No information,” her boyfriend chimed in.

“Not yet, y’all. But I’m sure — you guys are sneaky, I think you might…,” Blair said before quickly silencing herself, implicitly suggesting that you could find her if you wanted to.

People did. They found her and they trolled her. (On Tuesday, Blair issued an apology for having “taken away” the woman’s “right to her own story.”)

The doxxing put a dark spin on what appeared at first to be a happy story. Yet even before the woman was outed, scrutiny of the story was building. Was it right for Blair to publicize the event in the first place? And was it right that Blair was immediately celebrated on national TV? Ultimately: wasn’t this mystery woman, who was simply enjoying conversation with a seatmate, entitled to her privacy?

Maybe not.

Our awareness of privacy has been heightened lately thanks to an unfolding scandal over how platforms like Facebook use our personal data — specifically, how Cambridge Analytica allegedly used a Facebook personality quiz to collect data that informed its targeting of political ads. They weren’t the first to gather mass data from social media users. Michal Kosinski was one of the developers who first conceived of the myPersonality quiz (which was not an ad-targeting tool, and didn’t gather data from users’ friends) that a team at Cambridge Analytica later used as a rough guide for its own work. Kosinski’s latest foray into data analysis? Controversially suggesting that A.I. can detect sexuality simply by examining a photo of someone’s face.

He recently explained his outlook about privacy — and why he’s willing to push the boundaries of privacy in his research — to The Guardian. Kosinksy, like many of us, is a privacy fatalist.

“I can be upset about us losing privacy,” Kosinski said. “But it won’t change the fact that we already lost our privacy, and there’s no going back without destroying this civilisation.”

He may be right. But what kind of civilization do we live in when asking to be left alone is enough to destroy it?

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

The central question of the modern, platform-driven internet is: Who are you?

The platform economy, from Amazon to Uber, is built on this type of surveillance capitalism: who’s driving your car or who is riding in it; who’s delivering your food or who is eating it; who’s staying at your place or who’s renting it to you; who is searching for what; who is friends who whom; who likes what. What the platform economy therefore detests is not knowing who you are.

“The days of having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in 2010. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

A cursory glance at the internet eight years later seems to bear this out. Anonymity is the refuge of the nameless, faceless Twitter trolls who doxx unwitting victims. Anonymity is behind the crank phone call that sends a SWAT team to your house. Anonymity fuels the racist and misogynistic posts of 4Chan, which spiral outward into the rest of the internet with bizarre and frightening consequences. Anonymous is the name of a disruptive collective at the center of hacks and denial-of-service attacks.

And since 2010, the majority of us have taken active measures to avoid anonymity. We plug our names, faces, birthplaces and dates, and those of our children; our likes and dislikes; our vacation photos, consumption patterns, and political affiliations into a server. We display them in various combinations on a number of platforms, dependent on the service they offer. We do this to be validated by the platform, and thus, increasingly, validated outside it. And we do this because we have been convinced that non-anonymity is equal to authenticity.

This has led us to where we are today, faced with the insatiable demand to find a mystery woman from an airplane. The logic of surveillance capitalism creates that demand. In the society we’ve created, the question “Who are you?” cannot go unanswered.

If privacy has truly disappeared, then there is only one option available for escape from surveillance capitalism, however briefly. We must reclaim as personal ground the territory that the system has declared a no-go zone: anonymity.

What we forget, or are constantly nudged by the platforms to forget, is this: though anonymity can allow for terrible actions to take place, anonymity is not, in itself, a terrible thing. Rather, it is a neutral state that allows for both good and bad. We are reminded so often of the bad things that the good is drowned out. But the good aspects of anonymity are now perhaps even more fundamentally important than privacy.

Because the good things about anonymity allow us to actually be free.

Someone can know that you are reading this. If you highlight a part of it, or pause longer in one place than another; if you leave the window open for a long time, or close it quickly; if you finish it, other, similar things might be offered to read next; if you share it on social media or in an email, someone will know — just as someone can know that I am writing it. We both know this, and we expect it as part of the platform-based surveillance capitalist structure that has been built for us.

But if you were anonymous? If you read this without leaving a trace? No person, program, or algorithm would have any knowledge or record of it. You likely would not feel the need to share it. You probably wouldn’t worry about its content influencing the other things you read. And you certainly would never think about it being noted on a server somewhere that you paused to reread sections of it, or opened it again later. You would, in short, no longer think of your actions as part of a computer program. You would only think of your actions as, well, yours.

In the dogma of a surveillance society, our identity, thoughts, and actions are shared by default. Everyone belongs to everyone else, and anonymity is a sin. It is selfish not to share. But all that stuff we’re told we’ll get by joining the platform economy — freedom, choice, authenticity? It can only be obtained without a fixed identity, one that is constantly imposed on us, one that follows us everywhere and that people constantly examine. Anonymously, we are free to think and listen and learn for ourselves.

We are free, if we want, to change. To be whoever we want.

Update: This post has been updated to reflect that the anonymized data gathered in the MyPersonality quiz was not used to target users with ads, did not gather data from their friends, and was ultimately different than the tool allegedly used by Cambridge Analytica.


Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store