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Monday, 20 January 2014

Privacy lost? Not really

The tricks used by journalists to get you reading are numerous. One of them is to use contrast and by debunking a myth demonstrate the shortcomings of received wisdom. This is supposed to bring enlightenment, and thus engender a kind of satisfying resolution that the reader is wise to: burnish your own reputation and flatter the reader all at once. Sometimes the trick works and is justified because there really is a lack of awareness about a certain issue. But sometimes the trick is spurious, and I came across one today in the New York Times that fairly screams "overreach" in its bid the hook the reader. It's a story about family secrets and, by extension, about privacy more generally in our ever-more highly-mediated world. Here's the thesis.
One truism about contemporary life is that there are no more secrets. In the age of selfies, sexting, Twitter and Facebook, people are constantly spilling every intimate detail of their lives. Video cameras trace our every move; our cellphones know where we are at all times; Google tracks our innermost thoughts; the N.S.A. listens in when we dream. Everything is knowable, if you just know where to look.
Leaving aside for the moment that those family secrets probably belong most of all to the previous one or two generations, generations peopled by relatives who lived in the era prior to Twitter and Facebook, this paragraph begs you to pick holes in it.

For a start, data collected by the secret state is not broadcast publicly. Spy agencies make a point of keeping records under wraps - for generations sometimes. Read a book about a spy agency that covers the relevant period even as far back as WWI when a lot of these organisations were first established and operational matters are completely absent from the public record. This goes for authorised biographies of said agencies as much as it does for those that have been written by people outside the boundaries of trust. I once read the ASIO file of a little-known Australian writer who had been active in the labour movement after WWII and though I could read the agency's assessment of him the names of sources for the information relied on were blacked out. Read the biography of someone like "Wild Bill" Donovan - the man who set up the OSS, the precursor to today's CIA - and see how little operational material is allowed to pass through the agency's barrier of trust into the public sphere, even for the early days immediately post-WWII. It's depressing in a way. It's also a fact that the author of the NY Times article seems to be unaware of.

What about CCTV cameras? I'm guessing that most of the information they capture is lost through administrative routines. Images will only be kept and stored when there's a compelling and immediate operational reason to do so. Mobile phones? Noone is tracking my mobile phone as far as I'm aware and, if they are, they're not going to braodcast that information to anyone who might give a damn. Google might be tracking my search terms but they're probably just aggregating that information and selling the resulting data in a sanitised form. Even if they do keep the IP address attached to those searches along with the other parts of that record, my name won't be linked to it in any way.

Everything is not knowable. Far from it. Even in social media different people use different ways of disclosing things about themselves so that they feel comfortable about their privacy. Tweets do not give away the whole story. Not everyone uploads the morning-after shots from last weekend to their Facebook profile. People display an approximation of the reality in the matrix - the news feed and the tweetstream - that only barely suggests who they are, what they are doing, what they plan to do this year, what their true dreams are, and more. Or less. Children's names are not mentioned; you'll see a regular tweeter talk about 'Ms 4' and 'Mr 8'. Even the names of husbands and wives are absent most of the time; we might see 'partner' or 'batter half' but not the first name even. Many people on social media do not even reveal their real name; anonymous accounts are legion.

We project a sanitised version of ourselves in social media and that's they way we like it. There is noone joining the dots in a Big Brother scenario of total exposure. Even as big data develops we're not seeing publication of unaccountable versions of our public personas on the web. It's just not happening. Governments and private companies take privacy seriously.

As for family secrets ... well, there are many. In my family we recently learned that it's more than likely that my paternal grandmother had her first child out of wedlock: something that was never discussed when she was alive. And if my very-proper, church-going granny could do something like that then anything's possible. But just because granny led us all astray for most of a century it does not mean that my privacy has disappeared forever and a day. To a very large degree people are very much in control of how they appear online, and that's the way it should remain. Of course the amount of information about you that exists in the matrix is probably larger than it was, say, for your mother's generation, so it's also a fact that broadcasting more, rather than less, is most likely the wiser alternative because it allows you to be in control of what's easily accessible to others looking online.

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