The death of privacy in the age of the Internet?

I am what you would call a private individual. Which is ironic, considering I’m a writer and author and enjoy writing columns, articles, and editorials for my newspaper espousing my views and beliefs on any given topic.

At the same time, in those circumstances, the information about me released must be done through me. In other words, no one knows things about me other than that which I deliberately choose to publish. Everything else is strictly my business and mine alone.

Specifically, this means on Facebook I tend to fill out as little information as possible. I dislike having to “like” things in order to get updates from them, because it lists that on my profile. I used to post up pictures I take when I’m hiking – some of them beautiful – but I ceased doing that because I don’t see the point. I didn’t go on the hike or attend an event to tell the entire world about it. Aside from the “Facebook stalking” people can do to others in order to get to know them without speaking to them, the high amount of information people provide about themselves, available to strangers or mere acquaintances, gives a false impression of intimacy. Knowing a person is not the same as knowing things about that person.

For people I know, this brave new world is not frightening at all. They tend to be extroverted and thus not opposed to sharing trivial details about their lives in updates, posting 1,000 self-taken photos of themselves, and informing the world where they are at every six hours or so.

To me, however, the idea that people can know things about me without any control over it is scary, not just because it feels intrusive, but because it could lead people to assume that they know me.

This scenario played in a Reason magazine review of  The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move? by Patrick Tucker. The review discusses how technology will create a situation in which everyone will know everyone else’s business.

For example:

To illustrate just how naked we all soon will be, Tucker opens with a vignette from the near future in which your cellphone wakes you with a text message alerting you that on your way to work you will run into an old girlfriend who is going to tell you the happy news that she is engaged. The phone tells to you to act surprised at the news. This scenario unfolds as predicted, but instead of waiting for her to tell you, you blurt out your congratulations. As it happens, she not yet made her new romantic status public and is quite alarmed by your mistimed felicitations. The phone did warn you to act surprised.

Tucker then explores the early technologies that are combining to make this future a reality. Consider how the phone knew that you would run into your old girlfriend. Tucker discusses database investigations conducted by University of Rochester researcher Adam Sadelik to predict where people will be in the future using Bayesian software techniques. Parsing a database of 26 million tweets, of which 7.6 million were geotagged, from 1.2 million people in Los Angeles and New York, Sadelik tried to learn about the locations of people who did not geotag their tweets. He found that if non-geotaggers have two real friends who do allow their tweets to be mapped, his system “can predict your location at any moment (down to 328 feet and within a 20 minute time frame) with 47 percent accuracy.” That’s nearly a 50-50 chance of catching you, even if you think you’re opting out.

Of course, this all implies that people will use Twitter to relay where they are. It also supposes that people will have no control over what information about them can be relayed to other people.

The review attempts to envision a society in which government will be just as transparent and surveillance cameras are in every government office monitoring their activities.

Being the young curmudgeon that I am, I highly doubt this will occur. The State will always claim national security is at stake, use the “Surely none of you wants Mr. Jones to return” line straight out Animal Farm to scare people into complying, and then carry on as usual.

The other flaw in this system was highlighted in a post on liberty.me by Gina Luttrell  titled “Like What You Hate: Countering the Echo-Chamber of Social Media.” Human beings are not robots. They can be arbitrary and behave in a manner that is not always predictable. They also change. The programs also examine what they read, not why they read it. Just because someone reads libertarian literature doesn’t make them a libertarian.

She writes:

Therein lies the problem. Facebook’s algorithm (or, really, any algorithm based on spontaneous feedback) thinks it knows me and attempts to get me more of what it thinks I want. And, to Casual Reader Gina, that may be what I want: to skim a page and see all my biases and worldviews confirmed and reaffirm that I am indeed Awesome and Right.

But that is not what I need. That is not what anyone needs, to be constantly affirmed in what they believe. It is fundamentally good to be confronted with ideas that you don’t agree with, even when they seem outrageous or offensive.

The problem is that there’s no real easy way to get what you need through Facebook or other algorithm-based feeds. Sure, you can go in and create lists and make sure to constantly check the list of people you respect but don’t agree with. But doing that is kinda like eating Brussels sprouts: You know you should do it, but if doing it’s a chore, you’re going to do it a lot less often.

I could write a lengthy article on how transparency of people’s behavior will cause society to restrict itself out of fear, as no one wants to be seen as weird, strange or abnormal; or they don’t know the consequences of their actions. It would limit people’s natural curiosity and desire to learn new things. I would have never read the hundreds of libertarian articles if I had known someone who might consider me for a job would know. It’s not so much that people would know what I do, but they would presume to know me based solely on certain criteria that does not fully and accurately portray an individual. As my Shakespeare professor said in college, personality is what we think; character is what we do. You only have a complete picture of someone when you know what they think and what they do. In some instances, such as murder or theft or other behavior, the action speaks for itself. But in day-to-day activities, such as reading books and watching television and listening to music, it only says what, not why.

A better (instead of brave) new world would be one in which privacy is guarded and cherished, and people’s activities are shared only when they wish to share it. In a libertarian society this would be the natural state of things. A privatized society starts from the premise that what you do with and on your own property is private. It can be hard to envision such a society without the State, but at the very least people would have much more power over what information is available to others without their consent.

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