Privacy is a big part of our society. Deep down, the root cause of privacy is shame. We are ashamed of our bodies, or the bodies of others. We are ashamed of certain sexual acts we enjoy, or our browser history. And while it seems to slightly underplay this particular situation, we are ashamed of doing things that are illegal (more like afraid).
But privacy is not a good thing. Privacy is not a bad thing, either. Rather, it is a non-moral defense mechanism. Privacy is a form of lying, which is also not necessarily good. Because of the irrational nature of man, lying is also not necessarily wrong.
The classic example:
You are a German who runs a store in 1944. You are hiding Jews in your attic. SS officers enter your shop and ask if you are hiding anyone. In this case, I think most people would agree that lying is a moral imperative.
And yet, lying is not good, because it was lies that led to that very situation, lies which pinned a nation’s troubles on a scapegoat.
It is a very confusing situation, because most people would rather imagine that things are simple enough to just say, “Lying is wrong.” Our language has no word for a “good lie” versus a “bad one,” though we have a term for an illegal form of lying: perjury. We have also done this in some sense with murder/kill. It’s safe to say you should never murder someone, but there may be instances where you have to kill someone (as is generally accepted in a self-defense situation).
What does any of this have to do with privacy?
Well, I hate privacy. I am glad it exists, though not for my own personal benefit. I’m a pretty open book. If you ask me a question you think will be embarrassing, I’ll give you an explicit answer. It’s not because I have no regrets, I just have no problem owning up to them. If anything, it would be nice if some of my mistakes led to others not having to repeat them.
[Do not cook bacon nude… trust me.]
However, the fact that I don’t need privacy doesn’t mean no one should have it. It just leads me to ask: why do other people need privacy?
Why, indeed… because people do need privacy. They don’t need it like they need air or food or water, but I imagine if privacy (or to be more accurate, the illusion of privacy) completely disappeared tomorrow, I cannot even imagine the chaos that would ensue. Oddly, I think the anarchists would love it.
For one thing, there would be a whole lot of politicians resigning. Perhaps the group that most relies on privacy, the government would likely crumble. I imagine that there would also be a severe shortage of “acceptable” politicians to replace them, so I doubt things would get back to usual any time soon.
I like to imagine that one thing that would happen is we would see just how many people are doing things that they publicly opposed. I imagine a lot of pastors and priests abandoning their ministries for various things they’ve been doing (weird stuff… butt stuff…). People who railed against drug use who are addicted. People who criticize others for being promiscuous who are themselves unfaithful to their spouses. And then there’s the politicians, again.
I am positive that a lot of things would change in what our culture viewed as acceptable, and it would be for the better.
The problem is, we can’t just snap our fingers and make everyone omniscient. It’s interesting to speculate, but how can our need for privacy be realistically weaned?
I think the government could lead by example.
As it stands, the president’s correspondences and phone calls are already recorded for posterity. Given our ability to store vast amounts of data cheaply on modern computers, I don’t see why this can’t be the case for every elected official.
Would you, my humble privacy advocate, oppose such a measure? I hope not, because elected officials are our employees, and every company in the world watches their employees. And for good reason: an unsupervised employee has a tendency to cost the company money, one way or another. Gee, I wonder if our unsupervised government would ever do such a thing…
It’s only natural to take a “you first” stand-point on privacy, but it would be disingenuous to tell someone to go first with no intention of doing so yourself. Is the public ready to lose their privacy?
In many ways, we have no privacy. Most privacy advocates and voluntarists would be quick to try to claim that we choose to have our privacy invaded, but this is not true in several cases. For one thing, there is no informed consent in a vast majority of cases. If you are walking somewhere that has a privately placed hidden security camera, you have not consented.
In point of fact, eavesdropping and recording others without their consent isn’t (or in cases where it is, shouldn’t be) a crime. If you are trespassing while doing so (like sneaking up to someone’s window and peeping inside), you have broken a completely different rule.
Witnessing or recording a private act is simply not criminal. It may be embarrassing, it may be creepy, it may even be immoral in that it is a betrayal of trust, but it is not essentially a crime… unless, apparently, the government does it.
Now, I asked a question that I hope I could get answered, but I was met primarily with comments which, to put it as politely as I can, provided me with very little use. It wasn’t a trick question, it wasn’t some passive-aggressive attempt to advocate for government wiretapping (I pointed out more than once that I did not support wiretapping). It’s a legitimate question: why is it wrong for the government to listen to phone conversations?
Ultimately, I keep coming back to the fact that our laws and social norms are all fucked up. People need privacy because they deserve to be who they want to be without having to endure unjust punishment or shaming. In a way, it would be enviable to live in a world that didn’t need privacy.
“But Bret, you don’t even have what state you live in listed on your blogger profile.”
That’s true, and believe me, I wish I could. For one thing, I might be able to find a drug dealer down here a lot faster if I could use my blog for networking that kind of stuff. Unfortunately, my wife has received death threats, and not the kind that are spammed in all our blogs (hey DM, I’m still alive, fucktard).
I think she is nuts if she honestly believes that someone will go to the trouble of tracking her down and hurting her. Still, I find myself respecting her decision to keep our specific location “private” – though let’s be honest, you can IP track anyone down to what town they live in… but I don’t want to burst the illusory bubble of anonymity that people enjoy so much.
Privacy is just another irrational desire, but it’s one we are forced to accommodate until more people are willing to accept reality, because the harm caused to those who have their precious privacy taken away from them just might be very real.
[Oh, and if anarchists still want a legitimate argument against this sort of thing: how about cost? I’m more than a little disappointed…]