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August 3rd, 2007
10:18 am
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The death of privacy
As a follow-up to my post on the death of personal privacy earlier this year ... I finally found it again. The link I mentioned in a footnote. The really brilliant essay that summed it all up.

Quoting myself from three years ago, when I had the foresight to link it, albeit from a friends-locked post:
Danny O'Brien wrote a brilliant blog entry (update: link broke, essay is now here) about this effect, which I stumbled across [in June 2004]. In brief, he points out that we have three different "registers" (types) of conversation: public, private, and secret, and we communicate in different ways in all of them. In particular, we guard ourselves strongly when "on the record" (in public) in ways that we don't when we're addressing friends or associates. "Private" conversation is not intended to be hidden, but we assume a context that random listeners might not have, and it's aimed only at the audience being specifically addressed.

"Ah," you might say, "so the private register is like an LJ friends list." But the insidious thing is you would be wrong. A friends-list post is secret. It is restricted to only the desired audience, as opposed to "private" conversation, which is at worst hidden by obscurity. The public register is a loudspeaker and a soapbox; secret is a closed-door meeting; private is dinner chat at a restaurant.

The loss of privacy doesn't mean the loss of the secret register (though that register is certainly shrinking, and that's frustrating too). The loss of privacy means the loss of the private register. The notion of being consistently either on the record or totally hidden.

Before the age of the Internet, the vast majority of our lives was on the private register. This is still the case to a large extent. As technology continues to improve, it won't be.

Humanity can live without a private register, but I (still) think our lives will be the poorer for it.

The piece's author, by the way, replied to my e-mail last night*; he says "If you liked it, I did a more wandering talk about the same topic you can download here."

(I also mentioned to him that, given four years of hindsight, I'm really not convinced that the shine has worn off of distant mockery for the masses. "No, me neither," he responded. "And my day job [at the EFF] continues to teach me that the interactions between privacy and free speech aren't done with yet." True dat.)

* Given that the entire purpose of this post is to lament the ever-widening reach of the public sphere, I really had to think about whether to post excerpts from a (secret-register) e-mail conversation. Yes, massive irony. But on balance I believe no harm is being done here; there's nothing actually secret in the two lines I quoted. The link can be found via a Google search already and Danny's bio is listed on the EFF staff page.

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(5 comments | Leave a comment)

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Date:August 3rd, 2007 06:33 pm (UTC)
These links, they are fascinating and connect to things that are on my mind about privacy. Thank you.

Actually using the private and secret registers, I would argue, isn't essential to a healthy life of the mind - but their availability is essential.
Date:August 4th, 2007 12:38 am (UTC)

The annoying thing is that a little more flexibility would go a long way in solving this. You can try to emulate the private register by using some combination of the public and secret, and fiddling with the sideband formats a bit; throw in a little extra software and you can probably get a good chunk of it back. (Most of the death of the private register seems to be in electronic communication forms.)

But I suspect people won't, even if someone manages to figure out a reasonable set of protocols for it. The social protocol side seems to be largely controlled by the ignorant, apathetic, and fearful, and/or by mass effects that mysteriously moot/mute deliberate action on that part. The software protocol side is incomprehensible to most of the population, and many of the rest either have an interest in making privacy and/or secrecy go away or else staunchly don't care about it, which comes out almost as bad in the end.

Date:August 4th, 2007 05:09 am (UTC)
It seems to me that the example of LJ friends lists doesn't so much clarify the distinction as undermine it. For some people, all that's needed to get on one's friends list is a display of interest, which is more than you could say of a secret discourse. And the filtering system allows a spectrum of levels of publicness, privacy or secrecy.

On the other end, there are are situations that blur the distinction between public and private. A university class is (for some subjects) public at the start of a semester or quarter, and private by the end of it. I feel like my own entries (all but one non-locked) work the same way: knowledge of context is both needed and provided.

I imagine you can still argue the problem without relying on a sharp distinction, though.
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Date:August 15th, 2007 12:25 pm (UTC)
It's not just the registers that are changing/disappearing, it's people's concepts of them. You and I are of generations that still have a lot of personal space; whereas the more internet-based generations have a much different defintion for private: with twitter, LJ, moblogging of all sorts, and more ways to keep tabs on people than you can shake a stick at, it's almost impossible to keep any secrets, so people don't. What we would consider private/secret, are not the same things that newer generations would, methinks; they are forced, by the very technology that they depend on for life, to open themselves up to scrutiny that you and I could avoid easily even a decade ago.

Given how much personal information people tend to share these days, it is no wonder to me that some people no longer have any idea of what private/secret means; where the boundaries are; where the boundaries of other people are. They've lost touch with it, to some degree.
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Date:August 16th, 2007 06:46 pm (UTC)
What saddens me most about this is that I think the loss of the registers (and the younger generations' neglect) is going to further cheapen public discourse. We've already lost the art of letter-writing in our move to a more immediate world; and if the private/secret registers go, we'll also lose something less tangible but equally important.

Look at political discussions today, and for every serious policy discussion you'll find three kerfluffles over what amounts to ill-spirited gossip; people attacking politicians for a haircut or the size of their lawn or a moment of accidental candor. And I hardly need to get started over what passes for entertainment news. Politicians and celebrities, of course, live their lives completely in the public register. If they're any sort of harbinger, I really don't like where this is going.
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