On privacy…




The Circle by Dave Eggers

One of the ideas explored in Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle is the loss, and even voluntary relinquishing, of privacy in a world where everything is filmed and nothing is ever deleted. Considering the revelations this year about the NSA’s electronic snooping, and the knowledge that big companies like Facebook and Google are monetizing our personal information, we should be asking whether privacy is dying or dead. And if it’s not, how can we protect it?

Given the advances in technologies like information storage and retrieval and facial recognition, it almost seems inevitable that anonymity will go away. Rather than struggle against this reality, it might make more sense to figure out how we can best live within it. David Brin suggests that total transparency is the best way to do this–no more secrets for anybody, including corporations and governments. The emerging dystopia portrayed in The Circle also advocated this, except of course, there were ways to circumvent even total transparency, if someone was powerful enough.

In The Circle, most people opted in to the emerging system. They willingly went transparent in exchange for the benefits they were offered: convenience, simplicity, security, popularity. In this dystopia and similar ones like Feed by M.T. Anderson, it is easy enough to see that privacy may become an anachronism, something the young folks shrug off as “not such a big deal.”

In order to remain truly anonymous, you must turn into something of an electronic hermit, or even a literal one. But with face recognition software, cameras installed in every convenience store and stoplight, and private drones manning the skies — all technologies that are either here or coming soon — even that might not be enough.

I think the issue is more about control over our own information. People always have, and always will, demand agency over their own lives. Who has the control now: corporations and governments, or individuals? Right now, the balance is tipping toward the former. But this is a fight we could wage, and quite possibly win. It’s not a question of never posting anything to Facebook or Google or a blog ever again, although if that is your choice, it’s a valid one. But we should still be able to participate in the positive aspects of these new technologies without sacrificing our agency over our own lives in return.

For further reading: David Brin on the transparent society; A World Without Privacy (NYT opinion piece on The Circle); or just Google “is privacy dead” for about a million opinions on the subject.

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