Internet Privacy, Good Riddance

Two recent news stories have begged the question of privacy: body scan technology that might have found explosives tucked into a Nigerian man’s underpants on Christmas Day and Facebook’s new privacy settings. Both stories have privacy defenders chiming in, defending people’s right “to be left alone”, or so the right to privacy was famously defined in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965. After some reflection, and a couple Big Think interviews, I’m ready to say: “Privacy, good riddance.”

Sam Gosling, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, says that until the widespread use of social networking sites people were continually living double lives: their private lives and their public lives. You know the story: social conservative by day, meth smoking gigolo by night. But now, the tight control many once had over their “private self” is lost.

When “public self” and “private self” blend into something more like a “true self” then we will be on our way to opening up our understanding of humanity. We will see ourselves as having the potential for dynamism rather than as a narrow category of characteristics, or more usually, a narrow category of goods we consume.

Richard Posner, 7th Circuit Appeals Court Judge, notes that though people are often rabid in defense of their privacy, they are ready to give it away for the most marginal gain. People willingly hand over their financial information to a faceless website for “one-click shopping”, he says. This claim to privacy demonstrates the degree to which privacy is a modern concern, one born of individualism and financial security.

In my own experience, privacy and its twin sister “personal space” are easy, politically correct buzz-words used to shame a person into silence when another wants to control the situation, usually a conversation where either benign curiosity or a desire to help is present. Don’t get me wrong. I know everyone likes to close the door when they go to the bathroom, but claims to the right of privacy must have a context. We must consider what the value of privacy is relative to the other options available, e.g. helping someone face a personal dilemma.

And if we look to see what the empirical value of privacy is, i.e. in the case of those giving up personal and financial information for “one-click shopping”, we see the value is not very high at all.

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