Internet and the Privacy Paradox
“In the future, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes.“ – British artist Banksy
Does privacy truly exist? As Alan Westin proposed in Privacy and Freedom (1967) complete social isolation is the only way for one to achieve perfect privacy. Humans are social animals; we confide in each other. Individuals distinguish their identity through divulgence of facts or fictions about themselves.
One way we can look at privacy is as a continuum. We are currently at the nexus of two different cultural attitudes toward the protection of personal information. Even though I participate in the self-branding society, I cannot help but notice the erosion of anonymity by participation in contemporary living. At the same time, legions of the digital-participatory public gratuitously volunteer the most personal details of their lives and thoughts to a voracious online audience. It’s a Faustian bargain, where we citizens of technocratic societies are compelled to market ourselves as a brand in order to remain employable, sociable and relevant, and yet we still cling to the idea of privacy.
In recent human history, the birth and development of the Internet has provided unprecedented access to the world’s most accessible press that has ever existed, allowing people to volunteer the most intimate details of their lives; their interests, social groups and even graphic recordings of their sexual activities for anyone with a connection to see.
The content that we post at any point in our lives can come back to haunt us later, when it may no longer represent who we are, as was the case of Vancouver Psychologist Andrew Feldmar. When a US Customs officer at the Blaine border crossing Googled his name, he discovered an article Dr. Feldmar wrote where he admitted to experimenting with LSD in the Sixties to research the drug’s therapeutic uses. Feldmar is now banned from travel in the US because of the article.
And then there are all those average activities that have nothing to do with blogging, vlogging and friending. I am referring to the digital footprints left by activities like user authentication, search query, and online shopping. Ian Kerr, Professor of Law at University of Ottawa is lead author of the recently published book, Lessons From The Identity Trail: Anonymity, Privacy and Identity in a Networked Society. One of the book’s big ideas is that there is a paradigmatic shift in thinking, where automation was once regarded as a bug in the process of consent, now, more and more, consent is being seen as a bug in the process of automation. Technological projects ranging from Google Street View to cyborgs injected with Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFIDs) are contemporary realities, and though human RFID tagging is very rare, the precedent has been set.
I do not believe that at this point, the “thought police” are using Google Street view to spy on you and I, and one cannot spend all their mental energy on such creepy precedents as human RFID carriers, but these developments have not gone unnoticed, nor should they pass without being unremarked upon.
As we progress, non-divulgence of personal information will become functionally the same as living without a driver’s license, a credit card, a debit card – possible but very inconvenient.