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The Deprivations of Privacy

“The emergence of society—the rise of housekeeping, its activities, problems, and organizational devices—from the shadowy interior of the household into the light of the public sphere, has not only blurred the old borderline between private and political, it has also changed almost beyond recognition the meaning of the two terms and their significance for the life of the individual and the citizen. Not only would we not agree with the Greeks that a life spent in the privacy of “one’s own” (idion), outside the world of the common, is “idiotic” by definition, or with the Romans to whom privacy offered but a temporary refuge from the business of the res publica; we call private today a sphere of intimacy whose beginnings we may be able to trace back to late Roman, though hardly to any period of Greek antiquity, but whose peculiar manifoldness and variety were certainly unknown to any period prior to the modern age. “

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Here are the titles of some recent posts on the Deeplinks Blog, which is published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, America’s leading organization advocating for citizens’ digital rights:

  • Who’s Tracking Your Reading Habits? An E-Book Buyer’s Guide to Privacy, 2012 Edition
  • Ninth Circuit Gives the A-OK for Warrantless Home Video Surveillance
  • Attempt to Modernize Digital Privacy Law Passes the Senate Judiciary Committee
  • NASA’s Data Valdez: Thousands of Employees’ Personal Information Compromised in Embarrassing Data Breach
  • Don’t Be a Petraeus: A Tutorial on Anonymous E-Mail Accounts
  • ECPA and the Mire of DC Politics: We Shouldn’t Have to Trade Video Privacy to Get Common Sense Protections of Our Email
  • EFF to Supreme Court: Limit Release of Driver Info
  • Do Not Track Update:  Professor Peter Swire to Co-Chair W3C Tracking Protection Working Group
  • Reform to Require Warrant for Private Online Messages Up for Vote, but Down on Privacy
  • Jones Meant What It Said: EFF Urges Court to Stop Warrantless GPS Tracking

Privacy is far from the only issue addressed by the EFF, but this list does account for 10 out of 16 posts appearing on the Deeplinks Blog between November 21st and 29th of this year.  And concerns about invasions of privacy surface repeatedly in regard to Facebook’s data mining of user profiles and updates, Google tracking and analysis of search queries (not to mention their indiscriminate street view photography, monitoring of wifi signals, and use of gmail address books), and Apple’s tracking of the whereabouts and movements of iPhone users (also done by Android and other mobile systems).  Companies are known to monitor their employee’s internet use, email, and some even demand access to their social media accounts.  Law enforcement and other government agencies (foreign and domestic) seek access to citizens’ email and text messages and records of websites visited and documents downloaded.  Personal messages, photos, and videos are forwarded and distributed without permission.  Sites like Wikileaks publish secret government and corporate documents.  Hackers break into databases, steal information, take credit card numbers and banking information, and in the ultimate invasion of privacy, engage in identity theft.

As much as the modern understanding of privacy seems to be under assault on account of new media and digital technologies, it’s also true that many of us readily reveal personal information via online profiles and posts, post our personal photographs and video recordings, divulge our location through Foursquare and social media status updates, enable GPS tracking on our mobile devices in order to take better advantage of various apps and services, enter credit and debit card numbers on websites assuming that they are secure, and treat email, instant messaging, and SMS as if they were absolutely inviolable channels of communication.

Privacy is being consumed.  Online, our privacy is consumed by the advertising, marketing, and public relations industries, while we in turn are encouraged to serve ourselves up as personal brands (as befits cattle).  But through social media, we ourselves also consume other people’s private lives, perusing their profiles, attending to their status updates, looking through their photographs, listening to their podcasts, watching their uploaded videos.  Online we participate in a great orgy of consumption, as personal and intimate details are freely exchanged. On television, we consume the privacy of a select few, but in the age of the internet, paralleling our online devotion to following the lives of ordinary people just like ourselves, we have the relatively new genre of reality TV, which serves us up real housewives and biggest losers, bachelors and bachelorettes, apprentices and survivors, amazing racers and American idols. We are cast in the role of Big Brother, but not in the Orwellian mode of surveillance in the service of social control, but rather in a trivialized form of peeping tom titillation, spying for its own sake, the pure pleasure of voyeurism as another instance of the consumption of privacy.  It’s a short step from ogling others to googling them.

There is nothing new about our consumption of private lives.  What is new is the extent to which it is being carried out.  We are in the process of fulfilling Andy Warhol’s prophecy that in the future everyone will be famous, but only for fifteen minutes, or was it only for fifteen people?  Without a doubt, fame and fandom are being leveled and democratized as never before, as the erosion of privacy that has long been the price of fame for celebrities has now been extended to everyone who has an online presence.  We have long grown accustomed to consuming the privacy of famous individuals in the form of celebrity gossip distributed through online services such as TMZ, through television programming such as Entertainment Tonight, and through print media such as the supermarket tabloids and People magazine (not to mention the fact that all too often this type of content is featured by legitimate news media).  Celebrity is a phenomenon that’s older than television, but television’s emphasis on the up-close and personal, the way that the small screen favors the close-up, lends itself to unveiling of intimate detail and expression.  As much as he was an icon of hardcore broadcast journalism, Edward R. Murrow pioneered the format of bringing television cameras into the homes of celebrities in Person to Person, a program he hosted from 1953 to 1959.  As television came to dominate the media environment of the late 20th century, the proliferating presence of cameras and microphones made private life all but impossible for celebrities. It is no accident that the term paparazzi traces its origins back to the same year that the Kennedy-Nixon debates signaled the beginning of image politics, 1960 (the term is derived from a character named Papparzo, a news photographer, from Federico Fellini’s famous film, La Dolce Vita).  Is it any accident that the synonym for television set is monitor, as television’s basic function is the monitoring or surveillance of the environment?

But to be fair, while television, and before it radio, allowed audiences to view the outside world while remaining themselves unobserved, providing a kind of two-way mirror (aka a one-way window) on events, they also have constituted an intrusion of the outside world into private homes, and thereby contributed to the erosion of the private sphere.  And long before the internet, the adoption of the telephone allowed strangers as well as friends and relatives to invade our privacy at any hour of the day or night, interrupting even the most intimate of activities (before the widespread use of answering machines, some referred to this phenomenon as telephonus interruptus).

Over the course of the 20th century, the increasing presence of cameras and microphones have subjected private life to increasingly greater public exposure, but more generally the wiring of the environment (the environment in effect wearing a wire) and the unimpeded flow of wireless transmissions permeating the very air that we breathe has placed privacy under increasing assault. In the aftermath of Watergate, Marshall McLuhan noted that on account of the electronic media, “the entire planet has become a whispering gallery, with a large portion of mankind engaged in making its living by keeping the rest of mankind under surveillance.”  McLuhan held Arendt in high esteem, and he incorporated Arendt’s observation that the ancient Greeks viewed the private individual as an idiot, noting that modern ideas about privacy are an aberration, rather than a natural and universal human understanding about how we should live our lives.

It often comes as a revelation to individuals not familiar with the Constitution of the United States to learn that there is no specific articulation of a right to privacy in the Bill of Rights or elsewhere, and that privacy rights are the product of judicial interpretation of, for example, the Fourth Amendment protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

This absence is not an oversight on the part of the founders of the American republic, but rather a reflection of the fact that the modern concept of privacy was a novelty in the late 18th century.  And as surprising as this may be, the ancient Greek understanding of private life typically comes as a shock.  As Arendt goes on to explain:

In ancient feeling the privative trait of privacy, indicated in the word itself, was all-important; it meant literally a state of being deprived of something, and even of the highest and most human of man’s capacities. A man who lived only a private life, who like the slave was not permitted to enter the public realm, or like the barbarian had chosen not to establish such a realm, was not fully human. We no longer think primarily of deprivation when we use the word “privacy,” and this is partly due to the enormous enrichment of the private sphere through modern individualism.

The root meaning of privacy is the same as privative and deprived, as lacking a role in or access to the public arena.  For Arendt, privacy provides the space for the individual’s thoughtful contemplation, but must serve as a backstage region, to use Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical metaphor, for the staging of public action, political activity involving collective deliberation and cooperation.

Underlying this is the essential point that the public and the private are interdependent, which is why “the barbarian,” or member of a tribal society, has neither.  Conceptions of both the public and the private are tied to the nascent notion of the individual, of identity separate from the group, which only began to form following the introduction of writing and the advent of literacy. Writing, as Eric Havelock put it, “separates the knower from the known,” allowing for objective distance from one’s tradition and tribe, and from one’s own thoughts.  This inward turn opens the door to the idea of the private individual, while the act of reading and writing itself require a degree of isolation.  Readers read alone and apart from one another, even if they read the exact same text at the exact same time.  Listeners constitute a group, a collectivity, as an audience (which is a singular noun, whereas readers are plural).  A public then is dependent on the existence of the private individual, as the public is composed of individuals who govern themselves because they can think for themselves, speak their own minds, and deliberate as equals. Equality too is linked to writing, as it is with the introduction of codified law made possible by writing that we gain the idea that we are all equal in relation to the same set of rules and commandments.  Public and private then have their roots in antiquity, but do not become fully formed until the modern era, following the introduction of the printing press, which also opened the door for the modern ideology of individualism.

As public and private have a common origin, so too are they commonly at risk due to the same forces.  Politically, totalitarianism seeks to remove all of the barriers that make private life possible, at the same time that the public sphere is dismantled to create a single homogenous field of power through surveillance.  Economically, in ancient Greece, the center of public life was the agora, which also served as the marketplace, but only a few years before Arendt published The Human Condition, the modern marketplace began to be referred to as the private sector, as corporations usurped the human invention of private identity, and have systemically undermined the last vestiges of the public sphere as they seek to create a single homogenous field of consumption through the manufacture of desire.  We might well wonder why corporate executives for the most part have been allowed to escape the heavy media scrutiny that political leaders and other celebrities are subjected to?  Why are they allowed to hold on to the privilege of privacy where other prominent (and not so prominent) members of society are not?  Wouldn’t we all be better off if they were held to the same standards of transparency now required of politicians and government officials?

Underlying the general blurring and dissolution of the private and the public that we have been experiencing is the electronic media environment, which has undermined, superseded, and shortcircuited the media environment associated with literacy and print.  In place of individualism, which was based on the compartmentalization of private life kept separate from the public sphere, we have personalization, which involves providing open access to personal data, history, and activity, and the persona itself.  In the absence of boundaries, honesty becomes of the highest value, but it’s typically the honesty of self-disclosure, narcissistic self-revelation in the interests of self-promotion, as when celebrities go on talk shows to confess to personal problems as part of what is, or seems to be, an image revitalization strategy.  Openness in communication is treasured, even though indiscriminate openness can be damaging rather than healing depending on the context and manner in which it is approached.  Transparency is put forth as a basic principle for internet activity, and while awareness that we are being observed generally results in more ethical behavior than would otherwise occur, there are times when some amount of secrecy in politics is needed for successful negotiation.

Arendt teaches us that the modern concept of private and public is not immutable, and having changed before can and is changing again.  And having been born the year before Arendt published The Human Condition, I am not entirely comfortable with the increasing loss of the distinction between the public and private, nor can I completely relate to the post-individualism of younger generations.  But given our current trajectory, our options may be limited to living with surveillance carried out by powerful entities such as governments and corporations, or meeting surveillance with sousveillance, to use the term popularized by University of Toronto political scientist Ronald Deibert, with citizens pointing their cameras back at the cameras pointing at them.  Or more generally, our best option may be to work for a transparent society, to use author David Brin’s notion, where our personal sacrifice of privacy is compensated for by transparency on the part of the rich and powerful. If we must be deprived of the boundary between private life and public activity, and instead live and work in glass houses, let’s make sure no one gets to gets to mirror theirs, just because they have a great deal of silver.

-Lance Strate

Posted on 3 December 2012 | 10:57 am

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