Saturday, 4 May 2013

On privacy

I have a confession, something embarrassing in the context of the nominally liberal intelligentsia-type thinkers with whom people like me are supposed to identify.

I don't understand what's so great about privacy.

I've just been forwarded yet another article about how the internet is taking away this ephemeral sense of personal secrecy and isolation that we worship under the holy name of privacy. In this case, it's the glorious Julian Assange himself who bemoans the obliteration of our cherished right to inscrutability - something I found a tad ironic given that he's (allegedly) wanted by various governments for infringing this exact thing.

The argument appears to be that a supposed conspiratorial conglomeration comprising military-industrial tycoons, evil government bureaucrats, Guy Fawkes-cultist hackers and Mark Zuckerberg (and his attendant harem of social media demonspawn) is scheming to learn the most intimate details about you - yes, you - and use them to... well... you know. They're scheming to do something pretty nasty, obviously, because they're faceless goons who we fear purely because we don't know anything about them and we always fear what we don't understand because exploiting me - yes, me - in horrible ways will clearly bring them vast personal gain and untold power with which they can further secure their vice-like grip on world domination.

Call me new-fangled, but I simply can't see how if you experience more than mild concern over the issue of privacy, you are not basically just engaging in conspiracy theory.

I realise that the picture above is petty and facetious, so let's be serious: can we answer the following questions in any sensible, properly researched way that doesn't rely on pandering to our primal fears more than it relies on actual facts?

  • Why would any massive, power-obsessed government or corporation care about you? And if they do care about you, why would they want to do you harm?
  • Given that the rule of law still pertains (I imagine) - what exactly are governments and corporations going to be able to do to you based on any private information they ruthlessly prise from you?
  • How will more targeted advertising affect you and your quality of life?

You'll notice that none of these questions ask about whether online data-mining (spying, panoptic micro-disciplines of the self, "parasitical surveillance state" - whatever you want to call it) is really going on, nor do they doubt such practices' extraordinary scope. These things I am happy, for the sake of argument, to admit. It's not beyond the realm of belief that everything Assange claims about the extent of domestic cyber-spying is true.

The scaremongering articles on this topic, appear, indeed, extremely well researched on the minute details of all the operations and technologies being deployed to achieve such spying. These articles are rich, nay, saturated with juicy facts on this subject. But often the shock and awe they attempt to arouse by barraging the reader with these amazing data is used to mask their extreme deficiency in similarly well-researched facts when it comes to showing what the government or other such agencies really plan to do with the illicitly-acquired information they amass by invading our privacy so dramatically. The article linked above doesn't even say what's so bad about all this spying, it just takes it for granted that if  spying is happening, something awful will follow. (If anything, surely our detailed knowledge of all the spying methods and facilities is comforting. I for one think it's awesome that the NSA is so open and accountable.)

Honestly: what are these agencies going to do to harm you once they've taken your private info? What actual negative consequences have occurred through loss of privacy?

As far as I can see - barring a few very rare exceptions - these faceless agencies of which we live terror have only ever wanted, and could only ever want private info for one of two reasons: making money via personalised advertising, and preventing crime.

To be sure - undermining personal privacy to achieve either of these goals is a major ethical issue which is worthy of much public debate. What it is not, however, is a cause for panic. It is not a "threat to humanity", as Assange would have it, nor is it a good reason to complain that the internet is in any sense a bad thing. At worst, it's a moral conundrum on the level of political correctness or health and safety - to what extent are we willing to give up privacy for better services and increased safety? The answer is debatable, but it's not the end of the world if it's decided either way.

That is, unless you hold privacy itself to be something which is - fundamentally - a massive deal.

Just as a libertarian might say freedom is simply important in and of itself, no matter whether it brings any actual benefits to our life, many people argue that privacy is simply important to maintain no matter what.

To these people I say: you are deluded, unthinking followers of Enlightenment dogma who are equally as guilty of pandering to irrational fears and ideological blindness as the conspiracy theorists. But then, you're entitled to your beliefs, same as anyone else.

As a culture, we desperately need to move beyond the Enlightenment if we're going to make the most of the technologies of the future. Seriously, guys - things can't just be bad or good for no reason.

This whole obsession with privacy and freedom, started by all those celebrated 18th century fops, has been super-super-super-reentrenched by continuous years of cultural and academic concern with governmental and political systems that expired around 1916. I love Foucault (and Hollywood) to pieces but guys - even he got bored of prattling about panopticons and discipline by 1966, probably because he realised those things don't exist. Orwell was dead by 1950, so at least he had the excuse of the Nazis for his deranged belief in dystopia that has fuelled Western culture ever since.

What I'm trying to say is: governments don't want to hurt people these days. No one has any desire to see harm done to Average Joe. It's in nobody's best interests to initiate dystopia.

Look into your heart. What is the actual worst that could happen if people knew private facts about you? Once you acknowledge that the realistic answer is "basically nothing", the machine has won. your life will become so much less stressful and the future so much more exciting.

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