Last week, Google acquired Nest, a programmable thermostat and smoke detector company, for $3.2 billion. In the last year, the company has also purchased companies involved in robotic cameras, computer vision, humanoid robots, social prediction, and deep neural networks.
It might be exciting, sci-fi stuff, but it also has people worrying about their privacy. The NSA’s mass surveillance programs (and their involvement with major tech companies) rightly intensifies the issue.
But there’s a problem with how we talk about privacy.
The discussion typically centers on whether or not we should trust these organizations to have access to our data. Those who defend the NSA, for example, assure us that the organization is trustworthy. Last week, President Obama claimed that nothing he has seen “indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens.” In short, the NSA is well-intentioned and therefore deserves our trust.
Critics of Google will say: Google’s intention is to sell your data to advertisers. They don’t care about you. Their interest in collecting and collating user data is creepy and boundary-crossing. They should not be trusted.
Of the recent Nest acquisition, USA Today states that there is “something disconcerting beneath the surface”:
Privacy advocates – already wary of Google’s intentions given frequent accusations of privacy violations – aren’t keen on the idea of Google’s involvement with devices that already monitor our behavior and presence.
John Siracusa, in the latest episode of the Accidental Tech Podcast, defended Google (at least partially) by saying that people misidentify the source of their discomfort:
The danger of Google having all this information is not that Google is going to do terrible things with it. The danger of Google having all this information is that Google will do something stupid or people will hack them. … Any giant pool of information about people is a target. And the more centralized that pool is and the more valuable the information is and the more of it there is, the more it’s a target. And I don’t think Google is going to get all this information and be evil with it. (Although depending on your definition of evil that may have already happened.) I think the danger is that all this information is gathering in this big funnel into Google and Google will allow that information to leak out into the world accidentally.
I agree with Siracusa that Google is likely well intentioned. They have no interest in controlling people or using their personal data against them, though the same cannot be said of the NSA. But the debate about the intentions of these data-collecting organizations misses a key point. Siracusa’s argument about unintentional exposures gets closer to what the heart of the issue truly is: the erosion of our private lives.
We all have private lives which are distinct from our public lives. We think, feel, and act differently in private than we do in public. The private sphere is a place without judgment and embarrassment. It’s freer. It’s a place where there are no penalties for unconventional thought or behavior. Creativity, dissent, and even deviancy are unfettered in our private lives. The more we move from the private sphere into the public sphere, the more expectations, conventions, and judgments we receive from the rest of society.
Glenn Greenwald describes privacy as a state where “we are free to do the things that other human beings would condemn us for doing. We can be free of shame and guilt and embarrassment; it’s where creativity resides, it is where dissent to an orthodoxy can thrive.”
Now think about how much of our private lives has become part of the public sphere. So much of our daily activities, thoughts, relationships, travels, memories are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus, and others. This is mostly by choice; none of us are being forced to use these services. We are choosing to give our data to Facebook and Google. (Again, the same cannot be said with regard to the NSA.) But even though as individuals and as a culture we’re making the choices to expose more and more of ourselves, we don’t necessarily recognize how it erodes our private lives. The short term conveniences of technology outweigh the abstract and diffuse risks.
We don’t expect that little bit of sharing here and there to come back to hurt us. But it does. Who in my generation is not acutely aware of the risks Facebook can pose to employment? There was a time when your public self – as far as potential employers were concerned – was your resume and references. Now, one wrong photo can get you canned.
We have false assumptions about what is separate. We compromise privacy in one area thinking that it won’t affect other parts of our lives. Okay, fine, I’ll install a network-connected sensor in my house that collects data about my daily life. It is, after all, just a fancy thermostat. But the next thing you know, that sensor is in the hands of a big data company. A company that also has your searches, emails, chats, and mobile phone data.
What we previously thought was an isolated and contained amount of exposure is quickly converted to a more public and complete picture of our entire lives. Whatever Google’s intentions, does anyone actually believe that over time our private Gmail inboxes are going to be less connected to our public Google Plus profiles? Sure, there will be privacy settings and ways of opting out. And Google will never make the actual content of our inboxes available to strangers, but the fact remains that the boundary between private and public is dissolving more and more every day.
Sometimes it’s not even because of a specific choice we’ve made, but the choices of those around us. It’s not uncommon to have a drink with a friend only to later notice you’ve been Instagrammed or checked-in on Facebook. And you may think you’re breaking up with your boyfriend on a quiet rooftop, but you’re part of a culture that’s actively redefining what is private and what isn’t. So guess what? Your breakup is now a public spectacle on Twitter. What had been two people sharing a private moment is now two people subjected to widespread ridicule, judgment, and embarrassment.
This is why people feel uneasy. Our private lives are disappearing. And this is just the beginning. Wait until people are walking around with wearable computers. Will we eventually reach a point where all social activity is essentially public?
The disintegration of our private lives has real tangible effects on us as a culture. The tools we’ve created for communication and connection have been converted into tools for image crafting.
While some might attribute image crafting to the narcissistic nature of our generation, I see it as a direct result of conflating private and public. Image crafting is what happens when you’re forced to be ever conscious of social norms, of the judgments and expectations of everyone around you. The photos taken with our friends might once have ended up in a physical photo album, occasionally thumbed through when we reminisce. But now they’re on Facebook. Why? Because it’s easier to share them, it’s easier to preserve them, access them, copy them, and reuse them. Instead of one faded Polaroid, we get all the benefits of digital information. Why else? Because everyone is doing it. It’s fun. It’s expected. But now those photos are subject to the judgments of a wide array of people. Public expectations and values are applied to them. How can we not care about what people will think of them? It’s not narcissism. Humans are sensitive to the judgments of their peers.
We are all affected by public expectations. We want approval. And it’s about more than just Facebook. We dress nicer when we go out. We don’t bring up our darker stories on first dates. Getting a laugh from a group of friends feels good; being criticized publicly feels bad. This article would have been different if it was just an email to a friend. And even when we intentionally defy expectations (fuck what people think), they still affect us.
We feel a pressure to conform more in public, to say and do things that are socially acceptable. It’s called normative social influence and it is a powerful – although often unseen – force in our lives.
The less and less we have a private life, the more all-consuming public conformity becomes. It’s not surprising that the totalitarian regime in Orwell’s 1984 sought to eradicate all privacy, even private thought. The Party’s victory over Winston Smith doesn’t stop at controlling his outward behavior, it’s only complete when his private life, including his mind, has been completely subdued by what is publicly acceptable.
Don’t mistake me: I’m not some curmudgeonly technological conservative. I like social networks and I love how easy they make finding and staying connected to people. Facebook and Twitter are valuable tools and I don’t want to give them up.
Nor do I have a problem with social pressure. I like judgment and criticism. Peer disapproval is a great engine for changing human societies. Reputation and ostracism are more powerful tools than we realize. Even public shaming can be a good thing, despite how much it makes us look like a pack of hungry wolves. But these tactics are only appropriate when someone has legitimately stepped into the public arena. Calling out someone for something they say on Twitter, Facebook, or a blog post is different than making someone’s private life a public spectacle.
Obviously, there are exceptions. Someone thinking or saying something in private isn’t the same as hurting someone in private. No one gets to claim that abuse and violence should be respected as a private matter. And while I could care less what politicians do with their sex lives, matters that affect the people they have power over should always be brought to light.
We need a healthier awareness of the boundary between what is private and what is public, between what things deserve the judgments and expectations of society at large and what things are best left to the exploratory and creative private realm. We need to recognize that sharing data with a company that promises to keep it private isn’t the same thing as not sharing that data at all. It also wouldn’t hurt to have more self-awareness about how social pressure affects us. Being conscious about why and how we’re exposing ourselves can go a long way toward preventing later problems.
There are no set rules. And if there were, they’d be changed by next year. But the private sphere of our lives must be respected and kept alive. Regardless of the intentions of those with whom we share our personal data, regardless of the protections that prevent accidental exposures, and regardless of how easy and convenient it is to reveal more and more to the public, privacy is valuable, for its own sake.
Published on January 23, 2014
Cover image: Courtesy of Vladimir Kramer