Privacy: The Beginning of the End
Jason M. Pittman, Sc.D.
Privacy, because of its perceived necessity today, is rarely questioned in the context of tomorrow. To question privacy is to commit a grave act of heresy. As a result, the Age of Information has engendered an information model that has divided humanity into those with information and those without information. The measuring stick that serves as the fulcrum between those divisions is privacy.
We want privacy, but we want information too. We want information from others, and about others, but we do not want our information to be known. A subtle paradox exists therein.
If we are to survive as species during the next age, the Virtual Age, we need to ask tough questions about privacy.
You might be in the camp that demands more privacy. I suspect that you demand privacy because you feel that your information is valuable and threatened. You might be in the camp that is indifferent as long as your technology continues to work. In other words, you are comfortable with information being used as a currency to pay for services.
Or you might be in the camp that feels that privacy is secondary to (national) security. To you, information is ageless, and of perpetual use; thus that information holds strategic value.
To be fair, human cognition can be quite nuanced. Not only are there perhaps more camps to define but an individual may belong to multiple camps depending upon the nature of the information. For the purposes of the present discussion, I will leave aside the question of how demands for privacy can be categorized; I am more interested in exploring questions related to all the categories of privacy demand. Further, I am posing these questions in the context of the future.
Thus, the simple question, to begin with, is: is information privacy good for our future?
You surely have an answer. Given the state of affairs in modern society, you might be screaming, “yes!”. I bet that you at least nodded your head in affirmation.
If we are talking only about the present -- about now -- I might nod my head too. I'm not so convinced, however, about privacy in relation to tomorrow.
In fact, my position is that privacy is a flawed concept, flawed in ways that will pose more and more of a problem as we journey into a future of immersive technology and interconnection. It is already becoming, in some respects, a dangerous anachronism. Ultimately it may threaten the existence of our species. Like an appendix, privacy is a vestige waiting to burst from infection. And we are dangerously infected with the notion that privacy is good for us.
You most likely feel differently about privacy. You should; the present day is fraught with information used as currency. You should; today, we still view information as something permanent, as something to be owned and safeguarded. But this perspective may reflect a basic conceptual distortion.
When I started pondering the simple question of whether privacy is good for our future, I held the notion that privacy was a necessity. After all, we believe that privacy is something that we fight for, something that is to be won. Privacy is under attack; we must defend. The statistics could not be a lie: the public overwhelmingly (more than 90%) believes privacy to be important.
This, of course, is a good narrative because it appeals to our natural senses. That is, the sense to belong to a group, the sense to defend that group, and the sense to fight. And why suspect that the need for privacy is anything more than just a story? After all, we understand that privacy is a fundamental characteristic of the human condition. Privacy is something we naturally crave, we naturally need. Privacy is a redistribution of information power which keeps us safe from prying (electronic) eyes. On the other side of this same coin, those who threaten privacy are the adversary. The only use for (our) private information is a nefarious use, or so the narrative goes.
However, even if such claims are true, will those claims also be true in the future? There’s no guarantee of course. What if we want to ensure that the truth of those claims persisted into the future -- wouldn’t it make sense to find out if there are any flaws in privacy? Or, if those claims were no longer true, wouldn’t it make sense to gain an understanding of what we might gain as a result?
For the moment, I will leave these questions for your consideration. Stay tuned as we consider them further in next week's blog post.