Chapter 19. Privacy in an Age of Data
The battle for privacy, waged upon fields of data, will be lost. The reason it will be lost is that, precisely insofar as our social functioning becomes a matter of interacting data, to that degree there is nothing to which a decent concept of privacy can attach. There exists, on the fields of data, neither a self whose dignity is worth defending, nor a self that a global data-processing system is capable of defending. If a decent sense of privacy does not apply, in the first instance, to the socially embedded individual if it does not first flourish as an ideal in intimate, personal spaces it cannot flourish in cyberspace.
Privacy is inseparable from a certain willingness to lower one's eyes and to hold sacred what one knows or chooses not to know about the other person. When it has become a mere drive toward anonymity, it necessarily vanishes as a meaningful standard for our life together, signaling instead our disconnection.
In other words, the ideal of privacy gains substance only in those primary contexts where we know each other well enough to care. Given such contexts as a dominant reality of our lives, we may be able to rise above voyeurism, prurience, and the temptation of gossip so as to respect what deserves respecting in the other person. Lacking such contexts, we cannot win; we will be assimilated to the realities of our technology, where one data bit looks just like another and there can be no special protection for any of them.
Interestingly, the same Net has produced not only our acute fears about loss of privacy, but also serious concerns about unhealthy anonymity. Like so many apparent paradoxes of cyberspace, this is no accident. The two worries belong together. A prevailing impersonality and anonymity is precisely what makes everyone else a potential threat to me. This threat provokes counter-measures; where no one is known, everyone must be suspiciously noted. An atmosphere of suspicion in turn heightens the desire for anonymity.
In other words, relying upon the placeless, nameless medium of the Net for our privacy may produce paradoxical results. Where our aim is to escape recognition by other human beings, it isn't much use complaining that these others fail to recognize what is worthy of discrete respect in us. We have become invisible to them. The spammer who would not think of going door to door in his neighborhood offering pornography or financial scams, is quite content to inflict these scourges upon millions of unseen Internet users.
Unfortunately, the defense of anonymity becomes a necessity so far as we have already redefined society and our own lives in terms of data transactions. But it is important to realize that no ultimate victory lies in this direction. Rather, we will have an endless contest between privacy-protecting software and privacy-invading software. Once we have reconceived our lives as bodies of data, there is only a technical struggle over these bit-corpses. Those who carry out the struggle (fighting on both sides of the many unresolvable issues) do a necessary and important work, for which I am thankful. But it will all be for nothing if we cannot find a way to bring the corpses alive again.