Monday, 21 January 2013

A Skeleton in the Closet

Posted by Lokee

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. - Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google

  
Upon reading this quote, I took a sharp intake of breath, my jaw dropped open and I was forced to re-read it time and time again, not only because I was left in disbelief, but in order to reflect whether Schmidt’s statement is a valid contention.  Now obviously the CEO of Google has a conflict of interests when it comes to discussing the concept of privacy, considering he works for a company that relies on information being publicly accessible.  However, in an age where cyber-cultures like Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are popular mediums for communication, documenting one’s life, social networking and information gathering, has privacy become a thing of the past?  Are we forced to agree with Schmidt’s contention? 

Remarkably, while privacy is an expectation of, and widely advocated by, many in Western cultures, it is not easily defined.  As Solove (2008) states, “Currently, privacy is a sweeping concept, encompassing (among other things) freedom of thought, control over one’s body, solitude in one’s home, control over personal information, freedom from surveillance, protection of one’s reputation, and protection from searches and interrogations.”  When one considers how each of these elements comes into play in any particular life on any particular day, it should come as no surprise that the ability to effectively conceptualise privacy has troubled philosophers and academics alike.  Legally speaking, a person’s privacy is invaded when their private affairs or solitude is intruded upon, embarrassing private facts are publicly disclosed without their consent, they are falsely represented, or their identity is stolen (Prosser, 1960).  For the purpose of this article, privacy is summarised as the ability of an individual to maintain a life outside of the public sphere and keep private selected personal information that does not negatively affect others. 

Often when questions of privacy and its possible invasion are brought into public debate, for example, a discussion on surveillance cameras or the gathering of personal information, many voice the response that if a person has nothing to hide, then they need not worry.  This common refrain simplifies and minimalises the concerns of privacy advocates, attempting to stymie further debate by suggesting that one who desires privacy must have a “skeleton in the closet” or something to hide.  However, people who suggest privacy is of minimal concern compared to public interest or safety will quickly capitulate once subjected to intrusive questioning about their private life or when hypothetical scenarios are put to them.  For example, those who say they have nothing to hide won’t mind naked photographs of them posted in the public arena, or details of past indiscretions advertised at their place of work.  Of course these are extreme examples, but it clearly illustrates the contention that it would be a rare person indeed who had little to no regard for their personal privacy, particularly when one considers the all-encompassing nature of privacy, which Solove (2008) described above. 

Privacy is often taken for granted and thus not missed until it has been violated.  The negative representation put forth by those who use the “nothing to hide” response fails to capture the many positive reasons people value their privacy.  While I could easily use extreme loss-of-privacy hypotheticals as popularly represented in literature, like George Orwell’s 1984, to demonstrate what could happen if government surveillance was left to develop unhindered, I shall instead describe basic ideas most should be able to relate to.   

In a majority of white Western culture, people expect to be given their personal space, that is to bathe and change without being observed by strangers, to not have strangers touching them or their belongings when walking in public, and to have spaces in which to place items where they will not be searched, including their clothing, books, photos, toiletries and medicine.  People expect to be able to communicate with family, friends and acquaintances via email, phone and text without wondering if third parties will read or listen and share their conversations with others.  In addition people expect to be able to share thoughts and opinions with those they trust and not have these ideas aired to the general public, without their consent.  Also people expect their bank statements, phone bills, and personal information to remain just that, personal. Importantly, people expect to be able to share information about themselves progressively with those they choose, in order to develop a reputation that they believe best represents who they are.  This is a natural part of social interaction.  Another significant psychological benefit of privacy is the solitary time it provides for a person to reflect, ruminate and ponder.  Self-assessment is a necessary building block to personal development.  All of these things are expectations, and expectations that most have because of an established acceptance of privacy.  These might for some be considered minimal, but satisfaction of these small expectations with respect to personal space give a person a sense of control and allow them to feel safe and comfortable within their environment.

When one considers the effect that technology and in particular the Internet has had on privacy, a person sees clearly how the boundaries between public and private life have become extremely blurred.  In 1964 Brenton declared that “we stand on the threshold of what might be called the Age of the Goldfish Bowl.”  It would seem that we are now officially swimming, alongside the fish, in the Goldfish Bowl.  Once a person loses their sense of privacy, their life can become comparable to a caged animal on display, with no rock to hide under to gain that sense of solitude or control.  There have been notable examples in the recent past of the detrimental affect an invasion of privacy can have on a person’s life, when the Internet is used.  I will list only a few of those that are prominent in my mind.  Many may remember the case of Dharun Ravi, a young Rutgers University undergraduate student, who set up a webcam to spy on his roommate, who was having a secret tryst with another male.  The person spied on, Tyler Clementi, killed himself after discovering that not only had Ravi and a friend secretly filmed and viewed his tryst, but that Ravi had organized for other friends, as well as Twitter followers, to watch another planned encounter.  Due to the technology of the Internet, the invasion of one man’s privacy had the potential to spiral into a mob’s bullying behaviour. 

I shall preface my next example with the following disclaimer; I in no way support under-age drinking.  Now that that is out of the way…  In 2009, Wisconsin police officers set up a Facebook account and began befriending under-age college students under the pretext they were an attractive young female named Jenny Anderson.  After students accepted the friendship the police officers searched and printed photos of the youths directly off their Facebook page, if they were engaged in underage drinking.  Once they had gathered this evidence they called the youths into the police station and charged them accordingly.  Now some may respond to this story, “well if they were stupid enough to put the photos online, then they deserve what they get”, but I would ask you to reflect.  The students had selected the privacy options on Facebook, so that only their friends could view the photos.  Would you accept the police action had the police entered the homes of the youth under false pretenses, gained the trust of the young people involved, then betrayed that trust by leafing through photo albums with the intent of charging them with any infraction observed in the images?  It is not too distant a leap to compare the police action to an event straight out of George Orwell’s 1984, where Big Brother is always watching.  Following are quotes from two of the youths charged; “I just can’t believe it. I feel like I’m in a science-fiction movie, like they are always watching. When does it end?” (Bauer, 2009).   Another youth responded with this, “I feel like it is a breach of privacy. You feel like you should be able to trust cops.” 

My last of many possible examples is that of the “Star Wars Kid”.  For any of you who have become familiar with Internet memes, then this is one of the most famous, next to that of lolcats of course.  In short, the “Star Wars Kid” is a high school student, who filmed himself imitating a Jedi by swinging a golf ball retriever around as a weapon.  His friends found the tape, made an electronic copy and shared it around the high school.  One of these students also posted it on the Internet and it became a viral success with different versions being created that include special effects, text and music.  As of 19 January 2013 the original YouTube version has had over 27 million hits.  Some estimates suggest that, overall; the clip has been seen over 900 million times.  It should come as no surprise to many that the boy did not want this video to become public and has endured significant bullying and derision, not only from his classmates, but from many who saw the copy online.  He suffered depression, dropped out of high school and was institutionalised in a psychiatric hospital.  Fortunately, despite all of this, he is now pursuing a degree in Law.  Before you immediately respond with quips like, “That kid needed to toughen up,” or, “He should’ve gotten over it, it was funny,” what embarrassing moments in your childhood would have been made worse by having it made public to that degree?  While many did laugh with the “Star Wars Kid”, rather than at him, there is a nasty mob mentality that can arise in the online world that doesn’t take into account the feelings of others.  Not everyone has the skin of a rhino. 

I am in no way arguing against Internet trends, nor popular cyber-cultures.  Also I am not attempting to advocate privacy through appealing to people’s fears or paranoia.  I do not think we are moments away from living through our own version of Orwell’s 1984.  What I am saying is that privacy is a value in the Western world, one that helps a person to develop, interact socially and have the solitude necessary for self-reflection.  We have transitioned reasonably well from a stage where information was limited in its accessibility, to the present, where most questions can be answered, to a degree, via Google.  The public has become a part of our private lives and in turn our private lives are now a part of the public arena, largely due to the Internet.  It is for this reason that we need to ensure that while some of our private life is open to the public, the amount of it that is made public, is still within the individual’s control.  We need to ensure the privacy we have come to expect is not suddenly a thing of the past.  I strongly disagree with Schmidt’s contention that if we don’t want people to know about it, we shouldn’t do it.  Those are the words of a man who has an agenda, one that is made explicit, when his occupation and Google’s history is considered.   How would we change the way we lived, if we imagined that anything we said, and everything we did, was recorded and could be put on the Internet for the world to see?  Our life would become a perpetual theatrical production, in which we would monitor and second-guess everything we said, and everything we did, as if we were on stage in front of a large audience.  What control would we be giving away to those in a position of power and influence?  What opportunities would we lose and the government gain? 

We all have shameful moments, like the Star Wars Kid, but we typically have the opportunity to learn from them and hopefully laugh about them, because we can move on from them.  Moving on becomes an impossibility when the moments are forever kept in Google’s search engine and replayed by strangers for their own amusement.  We all need a safe place, and that place definitely isn’t found on the Internet.  As Michel de Montaigne said, “A man must keep a little back shop where he can be himself without reserve. In solitude alone can he know true freedom.”

List of References

Brenton, Myron.  (1964).  The Privacy Invaders.  New York: Coward-McCann. 

Prosser, William, L.  (1960).  Privacy.  California Law Review, 48, 338-423.

Solove, Daniel, J.  (2007).  I’ve Got Nothing to Hide and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy.  San Diego Law Review, Vol. 44, p.745.

Solove, Daniel, J.  (2008).  Understanding Privacy.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 

Solove, Daniel, J.  (2011).  Why Privacy Matters Even if you Have Nothing to Hide.  The Chronicle Review, May 15. 


Useful links I used for information about the examples of “Invasions of Privacy:






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