Monday, October 10, 2011

Privacy, Transparency and Liberty

“…and while to be political meant to attain the highest possibility of human existence, to have no private place of one's own (like a slave) meant to be no longer human” (Arendt, 1998, page 64).

Arendt was speaking about the Roman understanding that privacy of home and family was entirely consistent and interdependent with public life. She states that “The full development of the life of hearth and family into an inner and private space we owe to the extraordinary political sense of the Roman people who, unlike the Greeks, never sacrificed the private to the public, but on the contrary understood that these two realms could exist only in the form of coexistence” (Arendt, 1998, page 59).

It’s no secret that privacy is under attack; not only privacy, but its value as well. The attacks are abetted by increasingly sophisticated, powerful technologies with decreasing price tags.

While the attacks have a number of vectors, two stand out:
-          The use of massive social networks
-          An increased emphasis on security and safety post 9/11.

Or more accurately, it’s the alignment of the massive amounts of data generated by these vectors with the use they are put to. Bruce Schneier thinks of this data as  “…the pollution problem of the information age”.  Cory Doctorow sees it this way: “Personal data is as hot as nuclear waste”.

The data accumulates, is easily copied, stored, aggregated, mined, moved around, and analyzed. The legal frameworks protecting personal data and its uses are dated and becoming increasingly irrelevant. There is little consensus on what constitutes privacy and how the use of data chips away at it. As things stand, it’s a death of a thousand cuts. And it’s not only privacy that withers away.

It is axiomatic that the roots of privacy are sunk deep into the ground of what we loosely call ‘identity’. Without identity, privacy is meaningless. And without privacy, there’s a danger that we fall into a tyranny of mediocrity. Let’s look at this.

There‘s an argument that privacy becomes irrelevant in a transparent society. The argument for transparency goes something like this: if what you do is known to all, then you can be more reliably held accountable. Do something bad and someone, somewhere knows about it. Knowing that you are being watched keeps you on the straight and narrow. This applies equally to individuals, corporations and governments.

If you take the view that both governments and to a lesser extent social networks are shining their lights down on us (surveillance), then in order to offset this power and safeguard against abuse, we must shine our lights up on them (sousveillance). In order for sousveillance to be effective, there must be equiveillance, a balance or equilibrium of power between those shining their lights down and those who would shine their lights up. Given equiveillance, the light shines everywhere.

It seems to me that this view of transparency and its demand for equiveillance posits behavioral expectations that do not jive with what we observe on a daily basis. Data is interpreted by people through various filters: emotional and intellectual capacity, community mores and norms, religious belief and political affinity. Furthermore, the data is additionally filtered by what we are predisposed and want to believe. Consider also the unequal distribution of power between individuals and governments and its effect on access to data.

A person is more likely to conform to prevailing norms when they know they are being watched. In a world where every action is recorded, viewed and judged, a person’s behavior will become more and more constrained in order not to cross the line into unacceptable behavior. And not only behavior, but opinions and moral judgment. Jeff Jonas asks a great question: “Will a more transparent society make you average?” I’m reminded of a short story, Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut. In it, all Americans are equal. If a person has above average intelligence, she is forced to wear a radio to handicap her thinking. If a person has above average agility, he is forced to wear weights. There’s this great sucking sound towards the center, the middle of the bell curve.

In Vonnegut’s story, the government enforces an equality of the middle for the purpose of control. In a transparent society where equiveillance reigns, the control will likely be self-imposed. In either case, there’s a move towards the middle of the bell curve - a tyranny of mediocrity.

I make a distinction between ‘transparency’ and a ‘transparent society’. There’s value in transparency. Consider the work of the Sunlight Foundation: “The Sunlight Foundation uses cutting-edge technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable.” The idea is that accountability will emerge as a result of making government information available online, along with the tools to use and understand the information. It’s a worthy undertaking.

My argument with a transparent society is this: it is not, and can never be a solution to the erosion of privacy. It is based on equiveillance, and regardless of one’s belief as to its attainability, will lead at best to a tyranny of mediocrity and at worse to the world of Harrison Bergeron. In the end, neither will be distinguishable from the other. It’s hard to see how such a world will embrace tolerance for diversity and ‘the other’.

Privacy is a necessary precondition to individual autonomy, dignity, respect and independence. Put into the context of the Roman distinction between hearth and family and the public, it’s what makes us human. It is also a necessary precondition to liberty.

In a transparent society, accountability is imposed from without. One can argue (and I do) that liberty implies accountability from within. It is the acceptance of responsibility for one’s actions and the consequences of those actions. If I’m acting responsibly because I’m constrained from without, am I really free?

It might be good to remind ourselves that the US Constitution expands human liberty in order to constrain state and federal powers that might be used to limit those liberties. Consider that the framers of the Constitution clearly state in the preamble that one of its purposes is to “…secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

The ‘Blessings of Liberty’ encompass what we say, who we associate with and what we do. It’s naive to think that the authors of the Constitution did not place privacy as central to its protection. Without privacy, would the American Revolution have ever happened?

The use of increasingly sophisticated, powerful, and cheap technologies is critical to the undermining of privacy. Antiquated and lagging legal protections exacerbate it. Commercial pressures and security needs are drivers for its demise. And not least is the abstraction of human beings into ‘consumers’.

It is not just privacy that is being attacked. If we fail to protect the right to “a private place of one’s own”, the cost will be our humanity.

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