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Global Village People
March 4, 2012 11:58 AM   Subscribe

Is Privacy Dead? A conversation. "For the entirety of human history, we have operated on small scales and in relative anonymity. Our words are heard by the few people close to us and most are quickly forgotten. We walk down the street without passers-by knowing our names or history. The internet has started to change that. Our words and actions can easily be shared with billions of people around the globe and archived indefinitely. The details of our lives can be found simply by typing our name into Google. We need to understand the risks of this type of technology so that we can fully gain its benefits. We need protections, both technical and legal, so that a small mistake cannot devastate our lives. We also need education to help us function in a world where privacy is no longer the natural state of being."
posted by Sebmojo (34 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Collusion - a Firefox plugin that shows you who is tracking you, in real time.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:00 PM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have sometimes wondered whether the word "privacy" will sound to our grandchildren the way the word "honor" sounds to us.

"There was a time when people thought this was a real thing with immense value, which, once lost, was lost forever, and so they would go to incredible lengths to preserve it. People were weird back then."
posted by escabeche at 12:08 PM on March 4, 2012 [40 favorites]


I have sometimes wondered whether the word "privacy" will sound to our grandchildren the way the word "honor" sounds to us.

Wow, that's depressing on multiple levels.
posted by codswallop at 12:12 PM on March 4, 2012 [14 favorites]


The details of our lives can be found simply by typing our name into Google.

Not if you realized more than quite a few years ago where things were headed and were diligent to keep from doing anything online other than what is absolutely necessary under your actual name. If you aren't a member of Facebook, don't blog, have removed most of the easily-found traces of your personal website from 1996 from the internet, and are content not to deal with most of the social networking stuff so many find so fascinating, Googling one's name doesn't turn up much of anything about you at all.

Privacy is only as dead as those who wittingly (or un-) are willing to surrender it. Anyone with half a brain knows how to keep things private. Everyone else doesn't bother to think about the matter at all.
posted by hippybear at 12:13 PM on March 4, 2012 [8 favorites]


In law, one of the more famous articles about privacy dates from 1890. It remains a useful perspective on the issue.
posted by cribcage at 12:15 PM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Actually, the whole concept of privacy is only a very recent historical construct. There are many books on this issue, but I don't have much time to Google at the moment.
This link gives you a superficial introduction: http://techliberation.com/2009/05/27/privacy-as-a-modern-invention/
A quote from that link: "privacy is a modern invention. Medieval people had no concept of privacy. They also had no actual privacy. Nobody was ever alone. No ordinary person had private space. Houses were tiny and crowded. Everyone was embedded in a face-to-face community. Privacy, as idea and reality, is the creation of a modern bourgeois society. Above all, it is a creation of the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century it became even more of a reality."
posted by BobsterLobster at 12:36 PM on March 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


Actually, the golden era of privacy was remarkably short.

For example, 100 years ago, the average worker in the UK or France would have lived in a small apartment or house with several members of their family. Their neighbors would have known where they went, who they spoke to, what they did. Worse still, they probably would have spent their entire lives in that place. Private it most certainly wasn't - but it was hidden from the view of state or corporate agents.

Dial forward and we have immense privacy in our personal lives. We can, should we choose, live in such hermetically sealed bubbles that stories of people dying and not being found for 3 years are not uncommon. But underlying that privacy, a lot of information is available to state or corporate agents.

In the middle of these two times was a very short golden age in which people had tremendous mobility, higher incomes and the ability to live in smaller family units, and luxuries like an inside bathroom with a door and everything. But predating the information age when technology opened up who we were and what we were doing to those that held the keys to the locker.

In short: the golden age of privacy was vanishingly short in the great scheme of things.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:38 PM on March 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


It is useless to dial back to one hundred years ago. If the past was the golden age, then in small towns everyone knew your business and even before that time, moving back to middle ages, you slept with many in one room etc

You can still retain some privacy but now it requires lots of effort to do so.
Do you have a social security number? begin there.
posted by Postroad at 1:05 PM on March 4, 2012


Somebody didn't grow up in a small town! Let me assure you that in the 1970s, people knew your business just fine without the help of modern technologies.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:31 PM on March 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


I've often wondered what will happen when pretty much everyone has some embarrassing video or information that can be dug up online. What will happen when everyone running for state or federal government in say, 2030 has pictures of them in college, in their underwear (and/or) with a bong, easily traceable through Facebook or flickr archives? Or their old Livejournal comments? Will there be some kind of truce at digging up or exposing your political opponents because you have so much dirt too?
posted by nakedmolerats at 2:13 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or maybe some kind of unforseen reversi will occur? As in, the new wave will be a compo to see just how much can be revealed online? Like one would be hopelessly uncool unless there are multiple vids of sexual encounters featuring oneself online.
posted by telstar at 2:23 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Meh, I have a Google+, Facebook, LinkedIn, and I even still have a Myspace festering away somewhere. If you search my name on Google the only thing you can really see is my LinkedIn (by choice). My Facebook (which I actively use) and Myspace don't even show up in searches and you can only see the photo of my Google+.

Thanks to options that these social networks currently provide I'm able to have as much privacy as I choose. I don't see this going away anytime soon, and if it does I can always delete everything or walk away from it all.
posted by Defenestrator at 2:25 PM on March 4, 2012


"For the entirety of human history, we have operated on small scales and in relative anonymity. Our words are heard by the few people close to us and most are quickly forgotten"

I would argue the opposite. Of course there are the Medieval and tenement examples listed above, but for most of human history, we were hunter-gatherers and hunter-gatherers are not known for being private. Maybe it was just your tribe that knew about you, but everyone in your tribe probably knew stuff about you that most of us would be uncomfortable sharing with even our close family members these days. Dwellings made of sticks and leaves aren't terrible sound-proof, so people around you knew intimate details of your sex life, for example. Imagine if EVERY single person you knew had heard you having sex at some point? If you broke a taboo everyone would know about it and you might even be ostracized or otherwise punished.
posted by melissam at 2:29 PM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Privacy is a bourgeois myth. Ask underclass people who grew up under the constant eye of surveillance- the police, social service agencies, the food stamp offices- in the good old days pre-Google how much privacy they used to enjoy. Privacy was unheard of.

So nowadays the middle and upper-class (which is to say RICH) people who populate Metafilter and the rest of the internet are experiencing- because of their VOLUNTARY participation in it- the tiniest, almost always benign or otherwise mildly annoying, taste of what poor people have experienced for generations.

I'm so fucking sick of privileged little shits whining about "privacy" when what they're saying is that they might be losing, through their own fucking volition, something that has only ever been one of their class-based entitlements.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 3:11 PM on March 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


Hippybear, pseudonymity and anonymity are pretty much dead, so you have to stay off the Internet completely for true privacy, and that's without even getting into who's tracking and reselling your credit/debit purchase data.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:17 PM on March 4, 2012


Right, but as far as googling someone's name goes, there is no current information easily found via my given name when you google it. I've even tried drilling down with things like where I live and stuff, still nothing. I'm pretty happy with that.

There is someone in the UK with the same name as me. That's kind of bizarre.
posted by hippybear at 3:36 PM on March 4, 2012


One thing that has existed for quite a while that is rapidly disappering is the ability to up stakes, move on and start over. Obviously not an option for everyone but for hundreds of years if one became known as a goat fucker or something you could move and start over. Something that has be come increasingly difficult even if one is fleeing for one's life.
posted by Mitheral at 3:46 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]




Right, but as far as googling someone's name goes, there is no current information easily found via my given name when you google it. I've even tried drilling down with things like where I live and stuff, still nothing. I'm pretty happy with that.


What's interesting to me is that in many career fields today, it is a point against you if you don't have an online presence. This seems especially true for web-related jobs, which now includes most writing professions.
posted by deathpanels at 4:15 PM on March 4, 2012


Imagine if EVERY single person you knew had heard you having sex at some point?

I'm pretty sure they have.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 5:55 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


There was a point in my life where it seemed like I'd actually HAD sex with nearly every single person I knew.

I've mellowed over the years.
posted by hippybear at 6:00 PM on March 4, 2012


hippybear: “Anyone with half a brain knows how to keep things private. Everyone else doesn't bother to think about the matter at all.”

One one hand, I was not one of those with half a brain; and I'm more than a little nonplussed at the fact that my data is all out there for the highest bidder. I'd quit using Facebook if that would do anything but I don't think it would, sadly. Even just being linked to my ex-wife in google results is kind of painful to me, but it's not something I can change at this point.

On the other hand, I don't think it's as easy as you're saying it is. I work for a company that sells behavior-tweaked address lists to mail-order catalogs; we have a database of people with 600 million names in it. There is some duplication, but basically that's a huge chunk of the people in the US. If you've ever bought anything through a mail order catalog, we probably have you in our database; more likely we have a list of lots of things you've bought. That makes me nervous, too, but most of all it's brought home to me just how difficult it is to remain 'off the grid,' as it were.
posted by koeselitz at 6:17 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Right. There's nothing I can do about companies who are tracking my online behavior and seeking to benefit from what they learn (which is unlikely, because I don't live much of a consumer lifestyle and almost never look at online ads, let alone click-through on them).

But again, what I was responding to was specifically about the idea that you can Google someone's name and find out about them. It's true for a vast number of people, but it isn't true about me, and I'm pretty happy about that.
posted by hippybear at 6:25 PM on March 4, 2012


...pseudonymity and anonymity are pretty much dead, so you have to stay off the Internet completely for true privacy...

But even staying off the intarwebs (or never having had a computer) doesn't mean the Internet will stay away from you. I just googled my neighbor, who has never owned a computer and never wants to do so. He's on there in the county records database, on Zaba and People search, and most likely other stuff as well. And he doesn't really have any notoriety as such.

When they want you, they can find you.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:12 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like MF and a couple of other sites I’m on (no facebook or anything like that), but part of me hates the fact that I’m making a record of myself on the internet, even though most of it is not with my real name I’m sure someone could figure it out. I have some professional presence, but that doesn’t bother me nearly as much.

Among my friends I’m the odd one out just for being on MF and a couple of other sites, most of them will not sign up for anything. One day I will probably get fed up and try to figure out how to purge it all. I might have to take the whole internet with me, so make sure you have backups.
posted by bongo_x at 9:25 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


@ethnomethodologist

i'd ask you about like the rural poor or something or also if you are one of the "middle and upper-class" you are talking about, and if maybe instead we should be thinking about how to extend this benefit to others instead of celebrating its demise??

but you seem to have a good thing going so instead i'll just say that it's a good idea to have a soda or a candy bar on hand and a lot of water for when you come down
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 3:56 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


For the entirety of human history, we have operated on small scales and in relative anonymity.

Only somebody who has never lived, or even visited, a small town or village can fail to notice that "small scales" and "anonymity" are entirely incompatible.

As others have mentioned, up to the mid-twentieth century, "privacy" was quite an exotic concept for a large majority of the world's population. Even the most intrusive data mining technologies are far less nosy than the average village gossip.
posted by Skeptic at 5:17 AM on March 5, 2012


Reading the Privacy Policies You Encounter in a Year Would Take 76 Work Days.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:28 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


@skeptic yeah cool theres no diff between my aunt gertie telling my sister about my new job and massive centralized for-profit databases of info on people gathered and maintained mechanically en masse, its good that this is an unfashionable issue i dont need to care about
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 6:07 AM on March 5, 2012


>"As others have mentioned, up to the mid-twentieth century, "privacy" was quite an exotic concept for a large majority of the world's population. Even the most intrusive data mining technologies are far less nosy than the average village gossip."

And the average village gossip was often disliked for creating inaccurate assumptions based on incomplete amounts of information. A lot of these arguments about privacy seem to discount the dimensional nature of it--active or passive, individual or global, general or specific, etc.

The world is getting smaller, and individual thoughts and behaviors are becoming that much more valuable to both parties of this business deal. Privacy is/was a new and exotic concept because humanity is progressing and evolving, if only in a social manner. Even if we weren't, why is this new and "bourgeois" interpretation of privacy a justification for its invasion and destruction? This isn't a class issue; that's determined by whatever form of media we're currently arguing over. Privacy affects everyone exactly because it is this new social concept that can be controlled by people in power. Rich or poor, your walls/clothing are likely opaque and your thoughts get to stay inside your head, but when invasion of privacy becomes business-as-usual or a staple of the modern economy, it becomes a problem for all classes.

And if you don't want to buy any of those arguments, at least try to think of this whole issue from from a perspective focused on the importance of solitude.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 7:18 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think the privacy situation is at an emergency level right now, but I think we are less than 20 years away from a world with virtually no privacy.

Through some involvement with an amateur radio cub, I've found that there is a plan for unmanned aircraft to take up huge swaths of radio spectrum which means those small surveillance vehicles that are currently used on terrorists and border zones will be absolutely everywhere.

To me this means a lot more legal problems for backyard nudists and people who want to split a bottle of wine on a hike... not a good world imho.
posted by Intrepid at 8:29 AM on March 5, 2012


yeah cool theres no diff between my aunt gertie telling my sister about my new job and massive centralized for-profit databases of info on people gathered and maintained mechanically en masse, its good that this is an unfashionable issue i dont need to care about

Sorry, but I didn't mean that I don't care about modern abuses of privacy. My point was that one should not ignore how privacy invasion in "small scales" could also be pretty damn uncomfortable. You may not be worried about your auntie telling your sister about your new job, but things could get a bit hairier if she started talking about the girl (or worse, boy) she saw you meet behind the shed.

Village life could (can!) be extremely oppressive for nonconformist individuals for that very reason. There's plenty of lore, literature and history about people completely losing their shit because of village gossip. Indeed, fleeing the overbearing social pressure of small dwellings has been, to this date, one of the main motivations for countryside-to-city migration and the growth of large cities.

And the average village gossip was often disliked for creating inaccurate assumptions based on incomplete amounts of information.

I think that, on the contrary, the more accurate and better informed the village gossip was, the least liked he became. Even creating inaccurate assumptions would be difficult if he didn't have a previous reputation for accuracy.
posted by Skeptic at 9:40 AM on March 5, 2012


Even creating inaccurate assumptions would be difficult if he didn't have a previous reputation for accuracy.
Skeptic - have you ever worked in an office? Creating inaccurate narratives is breathtakingly easy for people like, oh say Rush, who have a personal yen for or an understand of certain immature fears and wishes.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:15 AM on March 5, 2012


Metafilter: hopelessly uncool unless there are multiple vids of sexual encounters featuring oneself online.
posted by herbplarfegan at 12:16 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


The issue, in my mind, is less "oh no, I have a facebook profile and shared stuff on it" than it is "too many places know little bits of me." My identity and details are published by other, completely-unrelated-to-me websites, such that if you google my name, you'll find public records of me, just like you will of Bluehorse's neighbor. As someone who's had this information "outed" by standard-issue internet trolls, it's a bit of a mindfuck to realize that there are people out there who are willing and able to cross-reference, say, that county tax record of my address, with a state I once mentioned living in on IRC, with a topic I discussed on Wikipedia, and a mention an ex-boyfriend once made of me, and come up with not only my name, but my phone number, my home address, my parents' address, and my employer.

In small-town 1970s, yeah, your neighbors knew you were buying condoms at the local drugstore, and maybe they knew that you were dating that bad boy Johnny from across town. But they didn't have the capability to call up your potential employer and tell them about that unless the employer was local and knew them, and they didn't have the ability to attach commentary about you to your 'permanent record" so that if, in twenty years, someone in [insert large city] asked their second cousin about you, they were treated to a compendium of what that old neighbor from [insert small town you moved out of] thought of you. Spheres of information were discrete then in a way they're not now.

THAT - the constant drone of little bits of information flying out of your private sphere, and the instant recall by the entire world of those little bits, and the (new, I think, in the general population) willingness to actively cross-reference and publish these bits - is where privacy is being lost now in a way it never was before.
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE at 9:11 AM on March 6, 2012


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