In December 2009, a wave of criticism addressed at Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, rolled through the Internet. The reason for this massive scolding was his appearance on CNBC. When asked by the host whether users should trust that Google will protect their privacy, Schmidt answered: “If you have something you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it.” The issue is not that simple and Schmidt should know. In 2005, he stopped talking to CNET and barred his employees from speaking with CNET-affiliated journalists, after CNET used him as an example in an article about Web services stripping us of our privacy by publishing his address, salary, interests, and the amount of money contributed to political action committees he supported. All of these were obtained by CNET journalists using only Google.
Schmidt is for eliminating the private sphere in the digital age (despite his doubts, when the sphere to be eliminated is his own). The search engine is only one of many tools that can easily eliminate our private spheres (another one is the ubiquitous CCTV camera, restricting privacy in urban spaces).
It’s obvious that the boundaries between what’s public and private are increasingly blurry. But the debate on whether making public that which was private is an underlying cause or a direct result of the trends observed in the internet is reminiscent of the chicken or the egg dilemma. We’re living in what Scottish cultural scholar Brian McNair called “striptease culture”, in which newspapers keep us updated on the most intimate details of the lives of celebrities, television is replete with confessional shows, while on the other hand we have older ladies – we don’t want to suggest that only the media conglomerates are to blame – trying to raise money for some worthy cause by posing nude for a calendar.
The Net, which has for many of us become the primary medium of communication, behaviour heretofore ephemeral or elusive, and certainly invisible to people outside our closest friends or immediate family, are becoming increasingly public in nature – they’re visible to a wider group of people and they leave irremovable traces. The ease of recording our behaviour, and later storing and browsing the recordings will strip them of any semblance of privacy.
The best example of this is the weird feeling we get after we add someone we met at one point in time (although we’re not sure if we could identify that person on the street) to our group of friends on a social network, and we immediately gain access to a library of pictures from trips, booze-soaked parties, and even from the birth of their baby. There’s no problem when sharing them is a conscious decision on the part of our friend. But is that decision always subject to our will? Given the structure of social services, so different from the environments we operate in daily, we’d have to say no. When you whisper a few tender words into your lover’s ear in the park, and only the birds might hear you. But when you send a saucy text message to your lover, it will be received and stored by the base stations it travels through, and its copies could later be accessed by employees of telecommunications companies or officers of various security services. (Of course, a surveillance drone could be overflying the park you and your lover were in.)
Nowadays, privacy is the currency with which we pay for services which are basically free. The aforementioned Google, and any other search engine, portal or web service collects information about us in return for free access to the service it provides. By searching for free, you tell Google what your interests are. By buying presents in a webstore, you tell its owners which products move the fastest. By looking at maps, you leave info about where you currently are and where you’re planning to go. John Battelle claims that we’re living in the shadow of a great “Database of Intentions” created by Google. Before the advent search engines, our personal data was collected by banks. But the main difference is that after only a few years of average activity, Google might know everything there is to know about the user of its search engine and other services, including our intentions and steps we might take in the future.
The choice between private and public actions is not a binary one, there is a whole spectrum of gray areas between those polar opposites. Just like our social network profile photos, cropped in a particular way, with our faces obscured with a strategically placed hand or a pair of sunglasses, or zoomed in or out as to make identification impossible. This example shows that we intuitively try to negotiate and manage our privacy. But we’re mostly unaware that our blog or a social network account can be accessed by anyone with a will to do so, and that each step we take in the Net leaks personal information. There are, of course, tools that allow us to precisely control which details concerning us will become public – like filters, segregating our contacts into groups with more or less access or blocking robots trawling the internet for our info. But only a fraction of us use these tools.
The cautious reader will notice that in this case, we’re not as optimist as we often are in our articles. In the case of privacy, we think advances brought on by modern technologies might bring more harm than good. It’s possible that we hold quite the archaic view in this regard – it looks like the youngest generation of Net denizens approaches building privacy in a whole other way, accepting that they are functioning within a much larger public sphere.
But threats connected with constant monitoring and lack of privacy are not going away anytime soon and they will also be a concern for the future generations. And the threats will only increase – if the next step of Internet development is connecting the global networks with our everyday-use Web-enabled devices, registering our environment with built-in sensors, then the “database of intentions” will also start to include information on our real-world behaviours. Then the entire concept of privacy will become ephemeral and elusive.