A Publication of WTVP

In the August 2011 issue of Wired magazine, Clive Thompson reminds us of “The Breakthrough Myth”—that most innovations happen overnight or take us by surprise. This belief is myth because real cultural changes have been “percolating in plain sight for years.” Such is the case with the seemingly sudden loss of privacy in the age of new media.

I find remarkable the degree that Americans have given up their privacy. It is my contention that had either the government or private entities worked so hard to strip our property, freedom of religion, or freedom of speech as they have to take away privacy, there would have been civil revolt. Although it seems that we gave up our privacy overnight, doing so was actually a gradual process over the course of 50 or 60 years. We have traded our privacy for (mostly) convenience and commercial profit. And this is a tale of trends that are very difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.

We will examine five aspects of these trends. First, what is privacy? Second, what has made privacy more complicated in the last 60 years? Third, who is watching, collecting, processing and disseminating information about us? Fourth, what are the significant problems with the current situation? And finally, what might you do if you really want to protect your privacy?

Defining Privacy
So what is privacy anyway? “The right to be left alone” was first articulated for American law in a 1890 Harvard Law Review article co-authored by Samuel D. Warren and (future Supreme Court Justice) Louis D. Brandeis. Additionally, we have a sense that others should have limited access to our sense of selves and that we should be allowed some secrecy about our personal information. We have the sense that if we choose not to live in the public eye, that decision will be respected by others. We have the right to control our identity and image from unauthorized commercial use and from others casting our good name into false light. And while such expectations are not directly enshrined within the Constitution or Bill of Rights, a long series of laws and court cases have established that even in these times of receding privacy, numerous legal protections of our privacy exist.

Yet, despite these protections, our privacy is compromised by a wide-ranging collection of data that is manipulated in various ways. It is aggregated and mined, primarily by computers and algorithms, and sometimes, people are identified via these collections and investigations. Most of all, it is shared with a variety of others via commerce in which massive amounts of data change hands for profit (profit that we never see). Sometimes that data is released unintentionally. It is almost always exchanged outside of our conscious awareness, without our direct permission or even partial understanding of the uses to which it is put.

Factors That Complicate Privacy
Almost every factor that has complicated the privacy environment over the last 60 years has its advantages and disadvantages. In fact, it is sometimes easier to see the benefits than the costs. Often, however, negative features overshadow the pluses that are claimed. When all the forces are combined, they produce an enormous amount of data about our lives and habits.

In short, there are now hardly any activities that do not feed data into the information environment. The Age of Information long ago ceased to be about our having access to all the information in the world. It has turned inward toward providing commercial entities with all the information about us that they can imagine.

Who Is Watching?
A wide range of entities collect information about us. Though not exhaustive, the breadth of the following list is instructive, especially to the extent that it seems perfectly reasonable.

A wide range of public entities collect information about us. Depending on our circumstances, we report information to international, federal, state and local governmental agencies. There are numerous public/private collaborations, like public utilities and partners (such as I-PASS or the towing outfits) that collect information from us. Some of us provide information about ourselves to law enforcement at the international, federal, state and/or local levels.

There are an enormous number of non-commercial, non-governmental service industries that require scads of data in order to provide us with their services. To name a few, these include all the entities involved in our healthcare (don’t forget the insurance companies), libraries, churches and schools—and all the identification cards that go with them.

Additionally, there are private, pseudo-commercial outfits, that is, operations that are private but removed from the customer in a way that they appear to be “behind the scenes” and might not be identified by most users as commercial operators. Search engines, advertisers, marketers, website operators, demographers and all the good folks in the communications industries (the ISPs; phone, cable and satellite companies; email providers and social networks) might fit into this category.

And of course, there are all the private commercial enterprises (both on- and offline) that make up the world of retail sales, banking and financial activities.

So, What’s the Problem?
It seems as though we’ve identified most of modern life, and certainly most commercial enterprises, as privacy problems. How can it be that so many everyday activities can be seen as risky or troublesome?

Perhaps the biggest problem relating to privacy in the current age is that most of the activities using our personal information happen behind the scenes, out of our awareness and control, and depend on our trust of these institutions and our uninformed calculation of risks and benefits. Sometimes this isn’t a problem. While the specter of “Big Brother” may encourage some to worry about the role of the federal government, in some ways the law is relatively handy with regard to governmental actions, as many laws limit what our government can collect and do with information.

In other ways, the law is not helpful. For example, there is no single privacy law, at the federal or state levels. The ways that governments collect and use information can in themselves compromise our privacy. And of course, the law is hardly helpful at all with regard to private actions, especially corporate actions that are almost totally unregulated.

Here are some examples that show how a lot of the stuff that is really good for us can also be really bad for us:

Protecting Your Privacy
There are a number of steps that we can take to protect our privacy, but it’s not easy. Again, the following list is intended as instructive, rather than exhaustive.

Finally, do as I say, not as I do. As much as I know about all of this stuff, I don’t do 20 percent of what I just recommended, though I’d love to do more. You see, really getting off the grid is just too much trouble these days. iBi