Ever get the feeling you were being…watched?

This essay was conceived after reading about the recent AOL search data leak. A comment about the tragedy of people making light of such a privacy violation lead me to think deeper on the subject. The tragedy. The comedy.

If you ask any person if they care about privacy, they will respond positively. Yet why does it seem that society does not care about privacy? I submit that people are more willing to sacrifice other people’s privacy than they are to protect about their own, hence the aggregrate attitude towards privacy is one lacking any serious enforcement.

I can think of several possible reasons for this. The most important one being that privacy is a hard concept to define universally. My best definition of privacy is the control over one’s personal information. Information can be anything from a person’s naked self, to a person’s thoughts as well as a person’s actions. This control is often maintained by avoiding observation by others, yet sometimes it is simply the expectation that others will not observe.

If that is an acceptable definition of privacy, the control over one’s personal information, how does that fit into our society? Freedom is our society’s most cherished concept. Freedom can be defined as being free from the control of others. One of the most important freedoms we have is freedom of speech, which means we have the right to share information without being subjected to the control of others. This presents an obvious conflict with privacy when that information is personal.

The definition of privacy is further muddled by the fast pace at which technology is advancing. In the past privacy was possible because means of surveillance were very primitive. Here it is important to note that authority and where it lies has a large impact on the debate of privacy. In the past one’s privacy in regard to the public eye could only really be violated by somebody with social authority, because there was no means to prove otherwise. One’s privacy in their personal space could only be violated by a direct observer. Today technology has advanced to the point that one’s privacy in their own personal space can be violated remotely, and furthermore, they can be brought into the public eye without a social authority. Image, video and audio recording all allow for cheap and efficient observation. With the advent of the internet, privacy is decaying at an exponential rate.

The internet has decentralized information, and it continues to decentralize it at a more and more efficient rate. Recording equipment is incredibly cheap, and the means to spread recordings is almost instant. All it takes is bad intentions and a little bit of determination to violate a person’s privacy in ways most people find incredibly uncomfortable. Now we see firsthand how betraying search results can be, how loaded with personal information. We are sending this information voluntarily and it is certainly being collected.

So if all the means exist for a Big Brother situation, or worse, for every citizen to be a big brother, what do we do? How will giving people control over their own information help if they are giving it away? Besides search engines, using credit cards at chain stores tells volumes about a person. We want credit and we want search, we want cameras and we want camcorders, but we have no experience mandating behavior when it comes to these things. There are no laws on the books against aggregating voluntary information, no laws against making recording equipment, and we don’t even know if we want those laws. Laws fighting technology have a pattern of failing, the only hope seems to be mandating responsible use of those technologies.
However if we mandate responsible use of those technologies, we are conceding part of our privacy already. We are conceding control to the organization who holds the data, to the person who weilds the camcorder. Are we ready to do that? Do we already do that? Ask yourself how comfortable you are and realize that privacy cannot be taken for granted. Then ask yourself if its really all that bad.