Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Death of Privacy and Why it Matters

I've been thinking about a constellation of issues lately and they neatly come together

1. What Privacy is about

In light of continual attempts by governments to spy on their own citizens, and I mean 'democratic' states like the US, Australia, etc., there are really common refrains that come up. Firstly that it is 'necessary', because of threats to state security, i.e. terrorism. Secondly that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear.

The first is blatantly untrue, in my opinion. Intelligence services have proven woefully inadequate at preventing terrorism, but governments are increasingly adept at defending against yesterday's threat. Hence the practically useless security charades associated with air travel. Furthermore, the sacrifice of freedoms is always a sign of defeat. Terrorists gained major success by creating the post 9/11 world, in which fear is a powerful motivator, and Western governments became increasingly un-free.

But it's the second refrain I am most interested in exploring. It seems obvious to me that it is an untruism, that there are plenty of reasons not to want to have information 'exposed'. And what I have concluded is that the issue is intimacy.

The act of sharing is an act of intimacy. When we share information about ourselves, we are creating a bond of intimacy between ourselves and the recipients. As they know us, they are intimate with us.

This has tremendous explanatory power. It explains why we are so upset when corporations share about us without consent - the language of 'violation' is particularly appropriate here since they have disclosed with others what we didn't chose to disclose. In a sense there are now 3rd parties who have an intimacy with us that is both non-reciprocal, and non-consensual. Privacy violations are a metaphorical rape.

It also helps understand the issues of mass celebrity. Any time there is one-to-many acts of communication, there is an imbalance in the intimacy created. The many feel like they know, and so feel intimate with, the one, but the one has no such relationship to the many. The more our world develops means of mass media, and so mass celebrity, the more disproportionate this effect becomes. For those who are so famous, it becomes particularly acute when a 'fan' crosses the line - acts according to the one-sided level of intimacy they feel.

Remove privacy and we remove intimacy, we make everything public, and so intimacy becomes infinite, and thus meaningless. When we are all naked in the public square, everyone is degraded.

2. The offense is always in the lead

We live in a world where technology advances and often there are two sides, the defensive and the offensive. The offense is always ahead. Let me explain by illustrating with castles.

Essentially castles are designed for defence. You put up some big walls, some moats, etc.. But the problematic thing about castles is that you actually want to use them - people need to go in and out, they need water, etc.. The problem with this is that these are always your weak points. That's why doors, gates, waterways, get special defences.

Except that offense is always ahead. Why? Because it's the offense's job to find new and better ways to exploit those weak points. The problem for defence is that it can only ever do catch-up, to defend against already known exploits.

You can see how this applies to technology - hackers always win. And the problem for the defense is that you can't really get rid of weak points if you want technology to be usable  And of course, the offense will always find a way.

3. The coming onslaught

It's worth reading these two reddit posts about privacy, and particularly about google glasses.
Who is spying? and Google Glasses.

Good? Back? Okay, let's continue. Google glasses extends the possibility of always on, always recording, audio-visual data. That's not what gg is about, but every aspect of its interface with the internet makes that more possible. That second reddit post talks about restrictions about having a light on the glasses, etc., and the social implications of wearing such glasses. Except all those things will fail. If there was a requirement for some kind of red-recording light, it would be bypassed. More importantly, I have every reason to think that eventually 'glasses' will become contacts, or cybereyes, or something else far less intrusive. Then  we will be living in a world of always being in the public sphere and being recorded forever. This is a troubling prospect.

It is, to be honest, a fairly daunting dystopian prospect. And yet I'm not sure how it is to be avoided, except through sizeable social resistance/change. Even then we may end up in a world where the ability to be private, to not share with everybody, becomes incredibly difficult (and so incredibly expensive). And then the only place to hide will be in plain sight.

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