The new privacy

Pub date June 25, 2008


TECHSPLOITATION It’s shocking how quickly we’ve all gotten used to the idea that the government can and will listen in on everything we say on our telephones, as well as everything we do on the Internet. Case in point: the FISA Amendments Act passed in the House last week, and is predicted to pass the Senate this week. This is a bill that grants telecoms retroactive immunity for illegally giving the National Security Agency access to the phone calls and Internet activities of millions of US citizens. What this bill ultimately does, aside from not holding companies accountable to the Constitution, is open the door for future mass infractions.

We’re looking down a fiber-optic cable that leads to a future where US spies can snarf up everybody’s data without warrants, combing through it for potential suspects in an ongoing digital witch hunt for terrorists or other "bad guys." I’m not saying anything new here. This is just a quick recap of every progressive futurist’s nightmare: it’s an Orwellian world where nothing you do goes unseen.

My hope is that this absurd bill won’t pass the Senate. But if it does, at least we can hope it will be somehow held in check by other laws to come, and by constitutional challenges. But I still think it’s time that we kiss our old-fashioned notions of privacy goodbye.

And not because we will all reveal our secrets and therefore be equally naked, as "transparent society" shill David Brin has argued. We never will be equally naked. There will always be governments and wealthy entities that have the means to cover their tracks and hide their transgressions. I think we must shed the idea that somehow we can protect the rights of ordinary people by protecting what we in the United States once called privacy.

The notion that we should each be granted a special sphere where everything we do goes unseen, unremarked, and unrecorded is a relatively new notion in itself, something that could hardly have existed in a small-town society where everybody knew everybody else’s business. And it still hardly exists in many high-density countries like Japan and China, where privacy is not as prized as other rights are.

What we ask for when we ask for privacy in the United States is a simply a space (physical or digital) to do legal things without fear of reprisals. Even when we had a more tightly-wrapped notion of privacy, say, 50 years ago, it was hardly perfect. Secrets leaked; spies spied. But there were no 24-hour videocam logs and detailed records of your every correspondence available and searchable online. You could write love letters to your secret admirer, ask her to burn them, and be sure nobody would ever know about your forbidden love.

If those letters were intercepted in a small community, your infamy would live forever. Not so in the digital age, when there’s so much readily available infamy that nobody could be bothered to remember your indiscretions for more than a few seconds. What I’m trying to say is that we will never have the old privacy of the burned letter again.

Instead we will have the new privacy, where what we do can be seen by anyone, but will mostly be hidden by crowds. The problem is that we still lose the old privacy forever. My secret transgressions may be drowned out by multitudes, but anyone who is determined to spy on my most private life will probably be able to do so — without a warrant.

So what do we do? Develop new standards of propriety, becoming as formal and controlled behind closed doors as we are in public? I think that will have happen in some cases. And in most cases, people will rely on crowds to hide them, hoping they never fall under sustained scrutiny. The more noise all of us make, the more we can help to hide the innocent. There will be a kind of privacy in the crowd.

But there will also be a private class of people who never have to rely on crowds. To return to my earlier point, I don’t buy for a minute the idea that at some point everyone — including the rich and politically connected — will be subjected to the same scrutiny as those people whose phone records were illegally handed over the to NSA by AT&T. The powerful will continue to have old-fashioned privacy, while the rest of us must get used to living without it.

Annalee Newitz ( is a surly media nerd who tried to hide behind a crowd once but they dispersed.