Americans have a strange and complicated relationship with privacy. While they love nothing more than “flexing” on social media—toes in the sand, vacations, nice dinners, proud family moments, half-nude selfies—they are also quick to complain when outside entities become too intrusive on their personal space. They love to “see and be seen,” just as long as it happens on their terms. But unfortunately, the digital transformation of American culture has forced people to pick their poison—privacy or visibility? Because, in the brave new cyber world we now live in, it’s not possible to have both.
What kind of privacy are we talking about?
The notion of privacy can be described in different ways, one of the best being Michael Friedewald’s Seven Types of Privacy from the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research. As a senior expert and head of the ICT research unit, Friedewald has conducted extensive studies into the social and economic impacts of emerging technologies and their implications for policy making, especially as they relate to privacy, data protection, and surveillance. In his book, Privacy and Security in the Digital Age, he explores the notion of privacy as a fundamental human right and a main feature in our overall dignity and freedom. And as such, he also frames it in a way that allows us to examine more closely precisely how technology threatens to change something we have, up until this decade, held quite dear.
Here are his seven key definitions:
- Privacy of Person: body functions, nudity, genetic codes, biometrics, and anything related to the physical form that should be considered private.
- Privacy of Behavior and Action: this includes personal issues like sexual orientation, habits, political beliefs, or religious practices.
- Privacy of Communication: all communications should be free from interception, eavesdropping, recording, or sharing with others.
- Privacy of Data and Images: this includes keeping personal information safe and in the possession of its owner, not to be used for financial gain by others without permission.
- Privacy of Thought and Feeling: people have the right to keep these things to themselves.
- Privacy of Location and Space: going out without fear of being identified, tracked, or monitored is important.
- Privacy of Association: folks have a right to talk to anyone at any time without being surveilled.
How does the internet affect these privacies—really?
When asked about the state of online privacy—or lack thereof—people love to say they don’t worry about it because they don’t have anything to hide. They’re not criminals or tax evaders or sketchy business owners, so what’s the big deal? While that may be true, these folks need to think about how their own basic privacies are reflected in every nook and cranny of these seven definitions—and more to the point, how they are being whittled away through various online experiences and security problems.
Taking this comprehensive list of privacies into consideration, people must ask themselves if they are comfortable with losing any of these rights in the public domain, otherwise known as the internet. Because, in various ways, each of these privacies can be compromised through an online experience. Do you want people to know where you live or where you spend your time? They do. Do you want people to know what materials you read every day? They will. Do you want people to know who you are married to and who all your friends are and what you believe politically, socially, and religiously? They can. All of this is out there in the digital landscape, so they just need the right access—unauthorized or not, it doesn’t matter.
What happens when our privacy is left in the hands of a third party?
This discussion of privacy becomes even more complex when you introduce the issue of big data and how companies on the internet are constantly targeting you to learn more, sell more, generate more. And don’t forget the hackers who are out there always looking for clever, new ways to steal your data and abuse it for their own gain. Even though this data comes in the form of binary numbers arranged in neat electronic rows, it is really just a symbol for your privacy and the many ways it is being manipulated, used, and ultimately destroyed. In order to find peace with this, users need to trust all the cookies out there are benevolent and not being misused—and that our data/ privacy is, in fact, being actively protected by those in digital power. And that takes some serious trust in humanity. We also need to trust that certain policies have been implemented to ensure our confidential information stays that way, at all points of its journey through cyberspace.
But the truth is, we as users sign all sorts of privacy policies without giving them a second glance and click “accept cookies” buttons without batting an eye. We have been worn down by the barrage of privacy-related messages, not because corrupt, greedy online businesses tricked us into doing so, but because we and the platforms who host our online visits have both made a collective decision (based on a somewhat capitalist-driven desire) to forfeit the privacy we once valued in the name of digital progress—in the name of security and transparency and commerce. Like a sacrificial lamb slaughtered on a pagan holiday or a Vestal virgin thrown into a fiery altar, privacy has been slowly dissected and dissolved over time to satiate the gods of modernity, invariably reshaping the way we think about our most personal information. And more importantly, this shift in privacy standards has also allowed us to accept an increasingly watchful world, where our identities and and actions will never be again be entirely ours—criminal or not.