What is private anymore?

Over the past week I’ve been reminded of how notions of privacy have shifted since the mass adoption of the always-on, mobile Internet and portable (tiny), ubiquitous video and photo capturing devices. It has been clear for some time now that we live in an age where there are very few places where our private thoughts, actions, words and behaviors are truly private. Many of us have also bought fully into the terms and conditions of a world where everything we do can be stored, scrutinized and monetized (anyone on Facebook – that means you’ve agreed to be sold and distributed). Some of the ways that we’ve given over ownership of our private content are based on notions of generosity (like the creative commons movement), others are based on a desire to communicate across distances to people we know (or once knew – again Facebook, but also Twitter, Skype, etc), and others are based on wanting the world to think what we have to say is valuable, which might have something to do with an increasing ‘culture of instant celebrity’ that has been fueled by reality TV (but also citizen journalism and blogs…like mine).

I’m thinking about this in light of the video that was captured of Romney pandering to wealthy donors and at a time when images have been published of Princess Katherine going topless while on holiday. Now, I do not in any way support Mitt Romney and I think the video demonstrates quite clearly how much he has transformed himself from a relatively moderate, sensible person into a pandering shell of a person who doesn’t seem to stand for much except for himself. But, I have to say I was slightly disturbed by how quickly the way in which the footage of him saying all sorts of inaccurate and insensitive stuff about the people he aims to represent was captured/distributed was overshadowed by what he had to say (i.e, what he said was the main issue, not that there was some kind of breach of trust – or was there?). Do we want to live in a world where we cannot have private meetings or speak directly to people without it being shared? I am glad the footage came to light because it might help to ensure he doesn’t become President, but I am also aware of just how apparent it makes our current circumstance of living in an age of full-time distribution, which is often out of our control (although we can always control what we say). Maybe this case just shows how important it is to always be honest: then you’ll have nothing to hide.

The images of Kate sunbathing topless fall into a slightly different category in relation to privacy concerns. In this case, it is a standard paparazzi tactic that has become the norm especially in Europe: if you are famous, you can count on being followed around and documented in all kinds of unflattering ways. Of course, this has sometimes been taken to extremes as in the many cases of phone hacking that were carried out by tabloid newspapers in the UK. In the case of the photos of Kate my first response was, ‘what was she thinking?’. Cynically, I thought that she would know better than to be in any even remotely public area in a state of dress that she would not want to be seen in. And then I had the opposite thought which is, ‘how sad is it that the poor woman can’t have a bit of privacy when she is on holiday?’. In the case of the phone hacking, it is clearer to me that there was real moral and legal infringement going on (although our phones are very much public communication tools – traceable, trackable and admissible as evidence in court – although recording a conversation without permission is illegal).

I am aware that I’ve been somewhat hypocritical above: on the one hand I’m pleased that the Romney video might help the candidate I believe in while on the other I am disturbed by the trend towards using ostensibly private conversations in a public arena. I wonder what kind of world we are creating when we all participate in a culture of surveillance  (there are nearly 2 million CCTV cameras in the UK according to one source – which is 1 camera for every 31 people). Not only do we participate passively (by not voting, for instance or by allowing laws to be enacted without fighting them) but we are all active participants through the various ways we share our data and images through social networking sites. We distribute ourselves and then complain when we don’t like the way our distribution has been framed, manipulated or controlled. We agree to new terms and conditions because we think of them as a necessarily evil. The results are not always what we expect: if you are applying for a job your employer will have Googled you, for example, like it or not (so you might want to Google yourself first so you can at least be prepared).

As is the case with many of the thoughts I post on this blog, I don’t have a lot of conclusions here. I am worried about our implicit support for what used to be considered invasions of privacy but I am also excited by the possibilities that social networks and new distribution channels offer. I feel caught in a strange position where I would like for their to be better guidance that helps us to think carefully about the morally and ethically complex issues around privacy and data. I know that there are many legal standards in the US that dictate how data can be shared and that there are fairly clear legal guidelines about some of the more obvious uses of private/public video/images/words. But there is an entire grey area that I think we are only beginning to understand and think about in regards to how we want our world to function. I am also pretty sure that there are experts out there who will know a lot more about this than I do, so I’d be really interested and eager to have guidance on where to look, what to read and who to talk to about this. Feel free to comment or be in touch.


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