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Privacy: The Sequel


Over at the Awl, John Herrman has written about re-envisioning tech privacy–in partial below, in full here.

One thing that makes caring about tech privacy issues difficult is that rather than getting solved, they often just get replaced with bigger ones. Mounting a fight against red light or speed cameras might slow their adoption, or get a few taken down, or win some lasting protections against overuse of the data they produce. Then, a few years later, the terms of that discussion are overtaken by the availability of high altitude drone-mounted cameras that constantly photograph entire cities, allowing every car to be tracked constantly. Using credit cards meant accepting the paper trail they produce behind your daily spending; now, your cellphone company—as well the companies that make software for your phone—knows where you are at all times. In 2005, the NSA wiretapping phones without warrants was a shocking scoop. In 2013, we found out the NSA had everything. Ten years ago, Google placing ads in Gmail was seen as an egregious violation of email privacy. Today, Google Now reads your email to tell you when your flight is going to leave, and what time to leave your house, which it can show you in photographs taken from space or from the street out front. The surveillance state is great at confirming our worst vague fears. In consumer tech, the arc of privacy bends toward “well, I’m using this anyway.”

Earlier this month, as our long national conversation about ad blocking and tracking was just heating up, Nautilus published a story titled “What Searchable Speech Will Do To You,” which made a convincing case for the urgency of the following question: “Will recording every spoken word help or hurt us?” The implication, of course, is that the recording is going to happen no matter what.

If yesterday’s unease about privacy seems quaint by today’s standards, and if tomorrow’s will have the same effect, the privacy issue becomes both more pressing and less approachable. These are the conditions that create cynicism and despair. They suggest not just that “privacy” is a lost cause—as Google’s Eric Schmidt clumsily attempted to explain in 2009.

They present, against all-consuming inevitability, one solution for continued sanity: a redefinition of the concept. Which brings me to this remarkable document from the Brookings Institution: “The privacy paradox: The privacy benefits of privacy threats,” by Benjamin Wittes and Jodie C. Liu:

In this paper, we want to advance a simple thesis that will be far more controversial than it should be: the American and inter- national debates over privacy keep score very badly and in a fashion gravely biased towards overstating the negative privacy impacts of new technologies relative to their privacy benefits.

Many new technologies whose privacy impacts we fear as a society actually bring great privacy boons to users, as well as significant costs. Society tends to pocket these benefits without much thought, while carefully tallying and wringing its hands about the costs. The result is a ledger in which we worry obses- sively about the possibility that users’ internet searches can be tracked, without considering the privacy benefits that accrue to users because of the underlying ability in the first instance to acquire sensitive material without facing another human, without asking permission, and without being judged by the people around us.

This is an argument that challenges not just the loss-of-privacy tech narrative but one of the premises that has produced it—the “default assumption” that “as technology develops, the capacity to surveil develops with it, as do concentrations of data—and that such capacities and data concentrations are inimical to privacy values.” This, the paper suggests, is an insufficient account of technological change.

Perhaps the lowest hanging example is Google. It’s a service patronized by most of the internet-using public, and has gathered an unprecedented amount of information about the humans of the world. The Google search box functions as place to look for help and to confess.

Target Manhattan location open hours

precedes painful

urination cause

right before

how to tell if im depressed

Together, these searches create a worryingly intimate profile—one that arguably overrepresents your most sensitive online activities. A profile that belongs to a multi-billion-dollar advertising company. A profile associated with your real name, email, location information, and chats.

But! But. But. What about all the things Google allows you to find, or do, that would have required either risky or impossible behaviors elsewhere? A small-town teen can seek medical information without going to the doctor, who might know her parents. The acquisition of porn, the paper points out, now happens at home, rather than at the magazine rack or the video store.


Adorno, de Certeau and Foucault meeting on a Balcony
Some old thoughts on privacy new problems with privacy

Let me begin my sober excursus into philosophy concerned with privacy with one artistic example, namely with Balconism/Balconization by Constant Dullaart. It presents a text, kind of postinternet manifesto, but also an installation consisting of an actual balcony. On a general level the balcony presents us with a spatial metaphor of the Internet itself - as the basic, underlying condition of any conduct we take online is, that we are both in private and public. As on the balcony, we consider the space to part of our private sphere, we reveal quite some personal information and that is why we actually talk about privacy online; but on the other hand we are visible. No matter whether someone actually watches or uses our personal data, important is that potential we are watched all the time, like being on a balcony. This gets us to the basic assumption concerning online privacy and its impact on our idea of the very private sphere. Due to its inextricable connection with the public we need on one hand to reflect its danger in abusing our private data (available on public) on the other hand we may address its mediatory potential be it in political (the impact of social media in the Arab spring for instance) or economical terms (tubers and bloggers).

On a theoretical level we can summarize the historical evolvement with Hannah Arendt’s influential book Human condition (Vita Activa). She argues that (1) in ancient polis the private sphere of a household (oikos) was strictly disengaged and subordinate to the public sphere of agora; everybody (except for slaves and women of course) was equal in terms of the public sphere no matter of their private interests. Nonetheless this hierarchy is overturned in (2) modern times where individuals are determined by their labour, class or social mobility - thus by their private realm, which invades the public sphere. Seems like we are entering next stage (3) where it is still more and more difficult to disentangle these two spheres (Arendt herself so as Adorno is implying or anticipating that as well). Our privacy is constantly redefined and used within the public realm (of the Internet).

We see there are conceptual as well as historical reasons to not to take the very concept of privacy as predetermined, unequivocal or anyhow universal; it simply cannot be identified as set of personal data (email address, pictures, consumption preference …). Contrary to such implicit preconception used by the favorite “loss-of-privacy tech narrative” I believe that privacy is deeply multifactorial and flexible concept that is being redefined along its cultural historical and even technological context. As such it cannot be disengaged from other underlying philosophical conditions such as the social order, its economical system or media channelling. It is precisely (but of course not exclusively) through the notion of privacy that the phenomenon of the Internet, virtual environments, and social networking in particular transform our social communication and culture t large. And from the opposite direction online environment not only poses new challenges for our privacy and its protection, but our very notion of privacy is fundamentally transformed in an entirely new perspective along setting new dynamic of accessing ones private domain.

(1) Let me set the problem of privacy within philosophical context in respect to its practices and human activities on three critical levels; namely in context of (1) consumption, (2) freedom and (3) power. One of these lines is a critique of consumer culture. Perhaps the most radical formulation provides the so called Frankfurt School and specifically Theodor Adorno. I Minima Moralia he states in the fragment Asylum for the homeless: “The predicament of private life today is shown by its arena. Dwelling, in proper sense, is now impossible. (…) It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” Throughout the entire book Adorno aims at analysis of alienation, particularly in terms of consumerist culture. He concludes that, due to mass reproduction penetrating into all spheres of life, even our privacy is not the domain of individual freedom. In 1951, when the book was first released, he provides an insight into prospective development of reproductive technologies and their impact on the privacy. Adorno is preoccupied mainly with radio and television. Nonetheless it points again to the lack of division between private and public. For Adorno it stems from the false identity of individual and general inferred in modern media including the Internet. Our identity and privacy falls prey to the public sphere ruled by uniformity and commercial exploatation. Uniformity of the private sphere is thus forced as a means of identification with the community. Along these lines, and particularly with Adorno, we can formulate a basis of our research. Privacy in terms of mass media and especially social networking is not sphere, which would be only opposed to the threat of misuse, and thus driven by the dynamics of protection against the logic of the media. But it also works in reverse dynamic through pressure to publish the contents private by the user. As users we are motivated by a desire to identify ourselves with others just on the basis of common or uniform private contents (holiday or celebration pictures, as well as information about the school or hobbies).

(2) While on the first level we have addressed the uniformity enforced within the medium on next stage we need to address the problem of new possibilities the media provides us with. For it is true that new means create new forms of communication and action. In this respect we may turn to Michel de Certeau who engages these with critique that these possibilities of media as they do not enlarge our freedom but on the contrary they entangle our action within their own logic. Media strive for deeper penetration of their mechanisms into our lives and specifically our privacy. In the words of Michel de Certeau and Reading as poaching chapter from his The Practice of Everyday Life: “In any event, reader`s increased autonomy does not protect him, for the media extend power over his imagination, that is, everything he lets emerge from himself into the nets of the text - his fears, his dreams, his fantasized and lacking authorities. This is what the powers work on that make out of “facts” and “figures” a rhetoric whose target is precisely this surrendered intimacy.” Though the text of 1980 was directed towards the medium of text and reading, we see the actuality in the perspective of social networks. De Certeau here shows that the new options, such as accessibility to dispose of their own personal data may not be an increase of privacy protection. Because our will to limit this access to our personal data is based on the idea (“imagination”) about our privacy, which is already incorporated in the logic of the social media networks. In addition this phantasm of “surrendered intimacy” allures through the promise of authentic human presence within otherwise highly impersonal communication in a virtual environment. nonetheless we can be cautious or even ironical, we can play along the lines of the medium and still keep our position safe. In one word we can poach. This also resonates in the Balconism of Constant Dullaart who calls for self-awareness, coding and encryption that spring from the very nature of the (internet) environment we entered.

(3) Both preceding levels of critique of media direct our attention to the issues of power, surveillance or influence in shaping our personality. At this level, it is almost indispensable to take recourse in the analysis of Michel Foucault. In his work he dealt with the particular techniques of discipline in modern societies and institutions. He analysed the rise of modern hospitals, psychopathology, prisons or the history of sexuality. Along his entire oeuvre Foucault warns against the reification or objectification of power as such. It cannot be simply seen as mere repression or particular institution. Power does not present only invasion into the freedom of individuals. It is interplay of forces that have been already shaping our concept of freedom. They are ubiquitous and inescapable. Not because they always surround us, but because the power itself helps to shape our individuality, which seeks to resist the power (Foucault, 1976). Foucault’s analysis is even more appropriate in the perspective of Internet environment and the issue of privacy. He invites us not to define abuse on one side and on the other protection of privacy on the Internet as two opposites. Undoubtedly we enter play of intersecting forces, which themselves constitute the entire sphere of privacy in the web environment. There is not only a counterweight or the result of our actions in the virtual environment, but rather its condition and constantly changing basis.

To conclude my sober philosophical exposition of the concept of privacy we can note that (1) it naturally springs from our consumption culture that defies any unproblematic notion of privacy (“to feel at home”) driving us constantly forward to look for means of identification with others or more precisely with their commoditized representations. (2) Nonetheless this does not prevent us from developing our identity and privacy online. We just need to be self-aware and instead of relying on these commoditized forms we should critically appropriate them (therefore the concept of poaching). (3) Our privacy so as our very subjectivity online (the condition of being an Internet user) is subjected to power and disciplination (of the medium). Therefore we cannot disengage protection and violation of ones privacy. We cannot divide our freedom and determination in the online environment; and last but not least we do not have a shared preconception of privacy as it is constantly reshaped by our actual activities online. Like being on our balcony in slippers and housecoat - while being (potentially) visible to anybody.