Friday, December 17, 2010

Muddling with Privacy

Two things I have read over the last couple of days are rattling against each other in my head, though there's no overt connection. The first, from a CNN series on ”The End of Privacy”, presents a putative new way of being:

Like some tech early-adopters these days, [Louis] Gray thinks privacy is a dying concept.... "I think we need to plan for all of our activities to be discoverable and indexable -- forever," he said. "Facebook is being very aggressive in terms of making things public that aren't previously public. Then you combine that with the deep archives of search engines."

People should act as if they're being watched, he said, and enjoy the benefits of having access to such a rich trove of personal information on the internet.

The second, from The New York Times, concerns the suicide of Mark Madoff—complete with a mention that:

His wife, Stephanie, had applied to the court this year to have the last name of her and her two children changed to “Morgan.”

He killed himself on the second anniversary of the date he and his brother turned their father Bernie over to the authorities.

Somehow, I don't think he was 'enjoying the benefits' of the 'rich trove of personal information' available about him.

We have walls and window blinds for a reason—just as we prefer to be alone to perform certain bodily functions. We need a sense of safety to be able to lick our wounds, to recover and prepare ourselves for the battles of the world. We need, also, to be able to clean ourselves—alone. Retreat into privacy is as necessary as sleep—is related to sleep. We cannot survive without either.

It's amazing to me that there continue to be those who don't get this—though I'll bet they still pull the cloak of privacy over parts of their lives—who argue that we should just learn to enjoy the 'openness' that the Web is thrusting upon us.

Too much openness may kill us as certainly as too much secrecy.

Is there, somewhere, someone fighting as hard for privacy as Julian Assange is for openness through his Wikileaks?

Maybe the Assange case will prove to be an argument for both, openness and privacy. Sweden, after all, wants to extradite him from England for crimes generally cloaked in privacy. This fact is known (and the extradition desired) solely because of his activity for openness.

We've a lot to learn about this world we're expanding in digital directions, and how to deal with the need for privacy is but one unclear aspect of that.

The answer, unfortunately, is not going to lie in public policy (it can't: privacy is its anathema). Nor will it lie in the direction that 'early-adopter' is heading—nor in Mark Madoff's. It's going to lie in each of us, as we learn enough to be able to protect ourselves and to accept limitation enough to stop ourselves from peeping in virtual windows.

Few of us, even if we wouldn't get caught, would sneak up to houses and look inside—and we turn away when we accidentally catch someone urinating or even picking their nose. One day, maybe, we'll extend that ethic to the Web.

Until we manage that, or develop some other personal means of respecting the privacy of others, openness and privacy will both elude us.

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