Privacy in the New Age

In an article written for The Atlantic by Adrienne LaFrance citing a research study conducted by the Pew Research Center, LaFrance asks, “When pubic life becomes the new default, what does privacy mean?”

Ten years ago most people believed they had some measure of privacy. Today, most people admit that they are being watched and most likely have no privacy at all.

Most IT experts agree. For most people, your information and your activities and preferences are no longer a secret unless you have:

  1. Paid someone to keep you completely “off the grid”
  2. Intentionally refused to use email, the internet, your cell phone, faxing services – anything electronic
  3. Avoided doing business with anyone who uses any of these mediums to transmit information

In other words, your chances of being invisible are disappearing.

But if you take path #1, you could avoid most of this because in the future privacy will probably only be a luxury paid for by the rich.

Why do you want privacy?

The need for privacy is built into our DNA. We’ve had to address it across a number of generations as technology has changed our lives.

From Wikipedia on “Right to Privacy”

“Privacy uses the theory of natural rights, and generally responds to new information and communication technologies. In the United States, an article in the December 15, 1890 issue of the Harvard Law Review, written by attorney Samuel D. Warren and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, entitled The Right To Privacy, is often cited as the first implicit declaration of a U.S. right to privacy. Warren and Brandeis wrote that privacy is the “right to be let alone”, and focused on protecting individuals. This approach was a response to recent technological developments of the time, such as photography, and sensationalist journalism, also known as “yellow journalism“.[2]

Privacy rights are inherently intertwined with information technology. In his widely cited dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States (1928), Brandeis relied on thoughts he developed in his 1890 article The Right to Privacy. But in his dissent, he now changed the focus whereby he urged making personal privacy matters more relevant to constitutional law, going so far as saying “the government [was] identified …. as a potential privacy invader.” He writes, “Discovery and invention have made it possible for the Government, by means far more effective than stretching upon the rack, to obtain disclosure in court of what is whispered in the closet.” At that time, telephones were often community assets, with shared party lines and the potentially nosey human operators. By the time of Katz, in 1967, telephones had become personal devices with lines not shared across homes and switching was electro-mechanical. In the 1970s, new computing and recording technologies began to raise concerns about privacy, resulting in the Fair Information Practice Principles.”

Today, when most people are questioned and speak about privacy, their attention mainly goes first to privacy from government invasion and second to privacy from commercial invasion by companies and individuals.

What Challenges Privacy?

Privacy from government invasion has been challenged by terrorism and homeland defense strategies. Today we are subjected to many potential invasions of our privacy in the effort to thwart terrorist actions before they occur. Nobody wants to allow terrorists to operate freely against Americans but we continually question how much freedom should the government have and can we trust them to use that information wisely?

And privacy from commercial invasion has been challenged by the Internet and electronic invasions like the credit cards and account database thefts suffered by major retailers. We question whether these entities really can be trusted with our information and whether we agree with how they intend to use it.

Our right to be “let alone” has been challenged as well as world population continues to grow at an exponential rate.

We can only believe that these threats to privacy will increase in their influence.

Natural Limitations

There are some natural limitations that help us with privacy.

With billions of people on the planet accessing the Internet and using cell phones, there is a practical limitation to how much data can be processed. Government reports from the NSA in response to Snowden highlight the use of “metadata” as a methodology that simultaneously reduces the amount of data to be processed and the amount of information available to people in the government who are looking at it.

The shear massive amount of data is growing exponentially and that leads to the use of key word searches used by machines to process massive amounts of data from phones, computers, and other devices with only the matches coming forward.

There aren’t enough human beings in the entire government to look at everything a machine would flag so in terms of having human eyes on our information, it becomes more unlikely each year.

Still be are not worried about the shear odds against it but the fact that the technology can and does exist and whether it can be used illegally against us.

Another natural limitations is cell phones themselves. It used to be that a law enforcement officer would misbehave and do something to a citizen without getting caught. The FBI, CIA, NSA, etc. could take someone into custody without our knowledge. Nowadays everything that anyone does seems to appear on a video capture from somebody’s cell phone – in high definition by the way.

There is nothing better to deter this misuse of power than the sheer threat of seeing yourself on the 6 o-clock news mistreating another person and abusing your authority. We certainly don’t want to get caught arguing that we need to protect the privacy of a felon committing a crime whether he’s from the police department or the government.

In Favor of Privacy – from Wikipedia

  • The right to privacy is alluded to the fourth amendment to the US constitution, which states that ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,[a] against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.[17]‘. The logical extension of this amendment to digital properties would make sense given that were the internet to have existed when the bill of rights was written, digital documents would have been considered more important than ‘papers’ as mentioned in the literal text.
  • Privacy helps to avoid unwanted and potentially intrusive interference in an individual’s personal affairs.
  • Privacy is one of the rights that were absent in the society of Oceania in George Orwell’s 1984. Without privacy, there would be nothing to stop a ‘Big Brother‘-like entity from taking control of every aspect of life.

Against Privacy – from Wikipedia

  • In 1999, during a launch event for the Jini technology, Scott McNealy, the chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems, said that privacy issues were “a red herring” and then stated “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”[18]
  • The nothing to hide argument is an argument which states that government data mining and surveillance programs do not threaten privacy unless they uncover some illegal activities, and that if they do uncover illegal activities, the person committing these activities does not have the right to keep them private. Hence, a person who favors this argument may state “I’ve got nothing to hide” and therefore does not express opposition to government data mining and surveillance.[19]
  • In wake of the Snowden scandal, governments have claimed that there is an existential terrorist threat that warrants the obsoleting of the so-called right to privacy.

What If There Was No Privacy?

  • The Pew Research survey says most people no longer believe they have privacy and a new generation of Facebook and social media users when challenged with privacy or staying in touch with their friends will choose the later.
  • Are we gradually becoming accustomed to a “public life”?
  • If we projected the influence of all of these factors – world population growth, internet, electronic media, use of social media, wireless connectivity, and increasing concerns over homeland defense and terrorism, it would not be hard to believe that in the future we might find a population that no longer holds privacy as a significant issue. Of course that would still be a society where you could purchase your privacy if you had enough money.
  • Are the biggest proponents of privacy those who have something to hide?
  • Is privacy the “whipping post” for other emotional and psychological issues harder to define?
  • What if we simply outgrow the need for privacy through evolution associated with generational changes?


It’s very possible that privacy as we know it or have known it will not exist in another 10 years. Although the fight for privacy will not die until the last fighting member of our generation passes on, it’s clear that the new generation doesn’t have the same values or want to fight the same fights as we did. I’m not suggesting that we will suddenly find reason to trust our government and the politicians – on the contrary, history has proven that we are likely to trust them even less in the years to come. We will simply outgrow “fighting” for things as the “war on drugs” and the “war on poverty” and the “war on terrorism” has proven to simply create more of the same.


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