Firmin DeBrabander

 

On his book Life After Privacy: Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance Society

Cover Interview of February 17, 2021

A close-up

Chapter 1 of Life After Privacy is an ideal first look for the average reader. This chapter examines our curious, conflicted relationship to privacy. We may say that privacy is important; we may recognize it as a crucial historical and political virtue—especially in America. In general, however, we hardly know what privacy is, or why it is valuable. And our behavior suggests we care very little about privacy at all.

Historians might argue that the United States was born of privacy concerns; colonists rebelled against British troops who occupied their homes and invaded their shops and warehouses. Privacy seems the quintessential American value. But it is not mentioned once in the U.S. Constitution; the right to privacy is articulated a century later—and only earns widespread legal protections in the 1960s.

In America, the right to privacy is everywhere, and nowhere. It is arguably the central design principle of suburbia, where most Americans live. And yet, isolated on suburban lots, behind privacy fences, in expansive basements, people go online—and expose themselves rather wantonly. I dub this our new ‘confessional culture.’ It amounts to something like a change in human nature, how we share so instinctively, and completely. Online, there is a growing sense that nothing is or should or need be private. Which means that our digital spies do not have to work hard to learn much about us. We digital citizens—thanks to our new culture of sharing—are the greatest threat to privacy.

Cultural critics and philosophers have tried to understand why we are suddenly so apt to share. Some believe it is in keeping with the capitalist spirit of entrepreneurialism: we share online in order to craft our personal ‘brand’ that we ‘sell’ to impressionable peers. Some argue, by contrast, that the impulsive sharing betrays an interest in privacy: when we expose some things, this draws attention away from others. I conclude, however, that we share because digital technology is a medium, and offers a sense of remove. It acts like Gyges ring, from Plato’s Republic, which makes its bearer invisible—and unhinged. Online, we feel utterly free, liberated to do and say what we like, with no thought of consequences—because we are physically removed from other people, whom we might injure or insult. Ironically, then, we are wont to share online because of a preponderant sense—and illusion—that we are alone, or private.

Our tenuous grasp of privacy, furthermore, is testified by a common adjective ascribed to privacy invasions: we dub them ‘creepy.’ When Target studies consumer data to determine when female customers are pregnant—in their second trimester, no less—we call this ‘creepy.’ This is the strongest complaint we can muster against surveillance regimes, but it is quite hollow, and useless. For, calling something creepy is to recognize that it is wrong—but you can’t say exactly what is wrong, or why. No wonder we cannot be bothered to protect privacy.