16 February 2013

Privacy in the Time of Cookies

"Invasion of privacy" is currently high on the Top Ten list of Things People Are Talking About/Worried About. At least here in the "Greatest Nation on Earth".[?: Are people in other places also talking about and equally worried about protecting their privacy? From the Wikipedia entry on "privacy":  The concept of universal individual privacy is a modern construct associated with Western culture, English and North American in particular, and remained virtually unknown in some cultures until recent times....The word "privacy" is an example of an untranslatable lexeme and many languages do not have a specific word for "privacy". 
Privacy is commonly viewed as an entitlement. Frequently someone will say "I have a right to my privacy" and their facial expression and body posture and tone of voice will be full of emotion. People think of "privacy" as something that belongs to them, something they possess. It's a God-given right and a built-in, non-negotiable component of Freedom. Invasion of privacy violates the Bible and the U.S.Constitution in many people's minds. Emotional responses include hurt, rage and fear; there's a passionate commitment to "protecting" Privacy and fighting off any attempts to invade or diminish it.

When someone says "... invasion of privacy!" most everyone understands immediately, on a visceral level, what they're talking about. Invasions by "the Government" are considered especially outrageous."What?! They invaded (y)our privacy?! ...You just don't do that; you don't invade people's privacy..."

On the social level, outrage about "invasion of privacy" can be felt regardless of political ideology or party affiliation. There may, however, be distinctions in what triggers the outrage -- e.g.,most Liberals feel strongly that Government should "stay out of the bedroom" and "keep its hands off women's bodies" while Conservatives feel duty bound to "invade" the same privacies through legislation (usually in the interest of protecting something they see as more important; "American way of life" or "Family values" are examples)...but don't touch their guns and don't tell them how to run their business.Those are private issues.

With the explosion of the Internet into every sector and crevice of human daily existence, and our dependence on it for everything from recipes and entertainment to companionship, community, career advancement and family genealogy, concerns about Privacy have increased and intensified The Internet is, by design, public, pervasive and interconnected. Coupled with the fact that most people have little idea (and a certain level of paranoia) about who sits "behind the curtain" of the WWW, about who exactly is looking at what exactly, suspicions of having been violated and preoccupation with the possibility of violation are commonplace.

As is my wont when encountering widespread social acceptance of a largely undefined concept, I consulted the dictionary and Wikipedia to illuminate and unpack "privacy." Wiki says

(from Latin: privatus "separated from the rest, deprived of something, esp. office, participation in the government", from privo "to deprive") is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or information about themselves and thereby reveal themselves selectively.
The ability to seclude myself and information about myself. Probably also seclusion of information about my lack of information about myself, i.e., I am entitled to my ignorance, willful or otherwise; and whatever information I am rigorously denying or avoiding is also none of your business. 

Privacy says "There's something here that I don't want you (or the Government or my neighbors or children or my boss) to see."  What's the basis for this statement? Often some fixed, unconscious fear that exposure will cause some kind of death: 
  • you'll think less of me
  • you'll have power over me
  • you'll take what I have
As my son entered adolescence he became highly defensive of his privacy. The door to his bedroom became a barricade. It was closed at all times. Opening it required express permission. The room and its contents became "private." There was no announcement or discussion; the new policy became effective immediately at some indistinct point in time. Compromise was out of the question and suggestions to the contrary were met with vehement pique.

His experience as an only child and mine as the eldest of four contrast sharply. I never had a room of my own; I shared with either or both of my sisters. We each slept in our own bed but the room and many of its contents were shared:  furniture, hairbrushes, books, alarm clock, cosmetics and calendar to name just a few of the things I remember. We even shared some clothing. 

Privacy, as in "private possessions", though I don't remember thinking about it much, encompassed little more than my bed, my diary, my winter coat, my toothbrush. There was no physical space that belonged only to me and was exempt from community access. 

I suspect being brought up this way contributes to what some describe as an unguarded and tolerant attitude about Privacy and "invasion of privacy." 

One of the reasons I avoid air travel is the security gate ritual. It's not, for me, an issue of invasion of privacy; in fact, there is something mildly erotic about being commanded to partially disrobe in public and being felt up by a uniformed stranger. Rather, I take issue with the purpose of the procedure and have doubts about its effectiveness as anything more than an inconvenience.

What I learned about privacy fairly early on was that closing my eyes and being quiet were reliable ways to transport myself to a "private" space. 

What I've come to believe about Privacy and "invasion of privacy" is that existence leaves a trail I am powerless to conceal; 

I take it for granted that if I'm doing whatever I'm doing online and They want to find me, They will;

I'm disinterested in developing the stamina it takes to maintain an illusion of invisibility or separation -- there's no payoff attached to either that appeals to me;

The idea that protecting my "privacy" and guarding certain information about myself is a protection against what others think of me has been disproved countless times;

I have lost so many cherished and sacred "things" in my life and discovered over and over again that the best of me, the most valuable "things" cannot be lost or stolen. Perhaps because they aren't ever possessed by me, really.

I've had my wallet stolen. Apartment burglarized. A boyfriend who read my journal. Caught a co-worker devouring the last bite of something delicious from a container bearing my name. Stumbled upon photos of myself on someone else's refrigerator or website. 

And I didn't die. I survived whatever impression of me was taken by anyone involved in those events.

Which is not to say I don't recognize prerogative:  I may or may not want you to know that I eat peanut butter cookies in bed. But I can live with whatever you decide about me after you find out, and with whoever else you decide to tell my "secret." 

And my enjoyment is unlikely to be any less.