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Privacy: Information as Permanency

Ancient Greek Writing

By Dr. Jason M. Pittman

Earlier in this continuing series on privacy, I argued that that there were three reasons for the rising demand in privacy and that such demand is bad for our species. First, I outlined my thoughts on privacy and information parity. Most recently, I presented my view of information as currency. Now, I want to share the last reason: permanency of information.

Culturally, we are under a spell that leads us to believe that information has permanency. We watch what we do or say electronically because there will be a permanent record. Moreover, we treat public figures -- celebrities, politicians, etc. -- with deep contempt should they express information contrary to something said or written even just a year prior.

This impression raises several important questions for us. For example, why do we treat information as permanent? Is it the information that is permanent or our desire for the information?

Permanency of information is the antidote to one of the biggest weaknesses our species has – lack of memory. Without information permanency we would not be able to pass information down to future generations. Without information permanency we could not plan our future. Indeed, without information permanency we would be trapped in the fleeting present. I might suggest that without written (or stored) information mankind would not have evolved to the technological empowered marvel we are today.

However, such permanency of information does not make for an unchanging world.

Think of a rock in a river. The rock is permanent, whereas the water is ever changing. This is how information permanency exists. Now, to complete the analogy, also realize that over a long period of time the water will change the rock. The latter will be reshaped, smoothed, perhaps even uprooted if a strong water surge occurs.

A timelier example of the confusion surrounding information permanency is internet content. You can use the Wayback Machine to visit almost 300 billion (yes, billion!) pages of web content extending back 20 years. I’ll use as an example but you can use any URL. Compare the page today to that decade old page the Wayback Machine archived.

Are the pages the same? It would be silly to conclude that the pages ought to be the same, right?

And that is my point regarding information permanency. We an expectation that external information changes (websites) but that our information remains constant, permanent. Then, we invoke privacy to limit or control our information. That’s strange, no?

Privacy treats information as something immutable. This is completely antithetical to how information exists, though.

Further, permanency is simultaneously the prerequisite for information as currency and the result of that currency. There is no power in information that can change. There is no parity if information cannot be pinned down and held constant. Therefore, we demand privacy as a fixing agent, a glue or resin that can fixate information. The counterintuitive part of this facet of the demand for privacy is that technology ought to neutralize the problem (look at the Wayback Machine example) but perpetuates the confusion. But maybe we are just confused about what privacy is?

Jason M. Pittman Cap Tech

Dr. Jason M. Pittman, Sc. D., is a scholar, professor, and cybersecurity thought leader. He is on the full-time faculty at Capitol Technology University.