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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The death of privacy

Part 1: A brief history of privacy

By Linda Felaco

A voluntary surrender of privacy:
Lisa DiBello's entry in Mohegan Sun's
"Show us your jackpot face" contest,
which appeared on the casino's
Facebook page last year.
Herman Cain's bid for the Republican presidential nomination is being undone by a failed effort to keep sexual harassment allegations against him private by paying off and gagging the accusers and revelations of a 13-year-long extramarital affair. Anthony Weiner was forced to leave the halls of Congress when lewd photos he sent electronically were made public. When shirtless photos of himself that he'd posted on Craigslist were revealed, Chris Lee resigned from Congress an unprecedentedly fast 3 hours later in a vain effort to forestall further revelations that the companionship the staunch opponent of gay rights sought was from transsexuals. And Julian Assange has been systematically exposing government secrets via WikiLeaks.

Granted, public figures don't have the same privacy rights as private individuals, and the old gentlemen's agreement whereby journalists didn't write about the private lives of politicians has long since fallen by the wayside. Though Herman Cain appears to be attempting to resuscitate it: In response to the most recent allegations, he issued the following statement:
"… No individual, whether a private citizen, a candidate for public office or a public official, should be questioned about his or her private sexual life. The public's right to know and the media's right to report has boundaries and most certainly those boundaries end outside of one's bedroom door.
"Mr. Cain … has no obligation to discuss these types of accusations publicly with the media and he will not do so even if his principled position is viewed unfavorably by members of the media."

Meanwhile, Google has been systematically posting street-level images of every address on Earth (and the rest of the universe) in vast online databases that are available to the public. And anyone who uses the internet is allowing corporations to buy and sell vast quantities of information about themselves, their purchasing habits, and their Web usage. And then there's the red-light cameras. Indeed, a case currently before the Supreme Court seeks to determine whether law enforcement agencies can put GPS devices on people's vehicles without a warrant.

Does such a thing as privacy even exist anymore in the digital age?


Right here in Charlestown, we have a former town employee and current town council member whose penchant for recording other people's conversations is so flagrant and notorious that it became necessary for the town's personnel policies to be amended to prohibit secret taping of conversations in Town Hall except by the police under warrant (see below). She's also suing the town over a conversation she listened in on without the speakers' awareness. I think we can all agree that you have no privacy if you're within hearing or recording distance of Lisa "Nixon" DiBello.

Then again, elected officials and people serving on public commissions in this town freely express opinions out loud in public meetings that you'd think they'd have the good sense to keep to themselves. At pretty much every meeting of the town council or the various commissions that I've either attended or watched on Clerkbase, someone has expressed a blithe disregard or outright snobbery toward people the speaker clearly considers to be their social and economic inferiors that literally made my jaw drop. And then they wonder why I don't show them the respect and obeisance they seem to think they deserve.

There are also folks who seem to think that public databases maintained by the town are somehow intended to be private, or that people are only supposed to use them to look up their own information (though if that were the case, the databases would be password-protected), or that repeating information that is public record is some sort of violation of privacy. Which is odd, because pretty much anyone who's ever written anything that's appeared online has had the experience of coming across it duplicated elsewhere in cyberspace, and I'm talking material that's copyright protected, not public records. And of course how could anyone, say, appeal their tax assessment if they didn't know the assessments of neighboring properties?

Government transparency is, as Martha Stewart and the Charlestown Citizens Alliance would say, a good thing. Though in the case of the CCA, it's more of a "Do as I say, not as I do" sort of proposition.

In the 18th century, philosopher Jeremy Bentham envisioned a world in which "morals [would be] reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused, public burdens lightened, economy seated, as it were, upon a rock." How would this miracle be achieved? Through the construction of a "panopticon," a circular building with cells along the outer walls, from the center of which every cell could be observed but none of the cell's inhabitants would know whether they were being observed at any given moment. Bentham intended the panopticon (from the Greek for "all seeing") to be a prison, but he also thought the design would work well for hospitals, factories, schools, and mental asylums.
Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791.

The panopticon represented the ultimate in totalitarian intrusion. And yet, ironically, all of us here on the internet have willingly entered an electronic panopticon created not by the government but by private citizens, and not for any high-minded purpose such as improving society, but for the most mundane of reasons, namely the pursuit of the profit motive. Owners of smartphones have even less privacy, given that their every move is tracked by GPS unless they remove the battery from the phone, which of course renders the phone itself useless. In fact, shopping malls are now tracking shoppers' movements via their smartphones. And the only way to opt out of being surveilled is to turn your phone off, meaning you can't use it while you're shopping.

Try this: Google a phrase, any phrase, then call a friend and have her Google the same phrase. See how many of your results match. These massive search engines have been spying on us for so long, and so cleverly, that they have reached the point where they can anticipate which results individual users will find useful rather than giving everyone the same list. (Then again, perhaps the fact that Google has been serving up Progressive Charlestown's story on the October Who Wants to Be a Millionaire auditions in Providence to people searching for the name of the show all over the country means the algorithms are not as smart as Google thinks they are.)

Having all this personalized information available at your fingertips is great if you're, say, trying to buy a junk 1966 Porsche V-12 911 to restore and not have to suffer the burden of taxation, but not if you're, say, a dissident seeking to organize with others to overthrow a dictatorship. As Evgeny Morozov asked recently on Slate:
Do we want to preserve anonymity to help dissidents or do we want to eliminate it so that corporations stop worrying about cyber-attacks? Do we want to build new infrastructure for surveillance—hoping it will lead to a better shopping experience—that would be abused by data-hungry governments? Do we want to enhance serendipitous discovery, to ensure exposure to new and controversial ideas, to maximize our ability to think critically about what we see and read on the Net? Or do we want to build computers that would conduct autonomous searches on our behalf—only to pitch us the latest sales deals, recommend restaurants in the neighborhood, and feed us one answer instead of many?
Indeed, our media-saturated, social-networked age appears to be spawning a younger generation that lacks even the ability, much less the desire, to endure the privacy of their own minds. In the September issue of Harper's, Garret Keizer posits that the reason his students resist reading is because it's too solitary an activity for such social creatures. He writes of a pair of students who only managed to get through Ethan Frome by reading it aloud to each other over Skype, thus turning it into a social activity.
Before entering the hall where the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire
auditions were held in October, prominent signs warned would-be
contestants that their presence there gave the show's producers
the right to reproduce their image anytime, anywhere.

Though it's not just the younger generation living their lives as if all the world's a stage. Casinos, for example, with their all-encompassing surveillance, are the ultimate modern panopticon. When you step inside the doors, you may as well call out "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up." As perhaps Lisa DiBello did when she participated in Mohegan Sun's "Show us your jackpot face" contest last year. Though that was one contest she didn't win, sadly.

Some people even seem to relish being in the panopticon and seek it out for their own personal aggrandizement. Like our own Lisa DiBello, with her game show and reality show appearances, and her brother, Mark Anthony DiBello, the self-proclaimed "minister of reality TV." We'll analyze just what they've revealed to us via the panopticon in part 2 of this essay.