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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #28      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates     September 25, 1996
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Editor's note
    *** Privacy in an age of data (Stephen L. Talbott)
          The quest for anonymity spells the end of privacy
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's note

    A couple of items from odd corners of my desk:

    According to the August 1 Toronto Globe & Mail (as reported in Edupage),

    experts on electronic communications said ideas presented by G7 leaders for fighting terrorism by restricting access to the Internet are "naive and probably unworkable" because there are too many ways to circumvent censorship on the Net to believe regulation could prevent terrorists from using the technology for communications.
    These are presumably the same experts who advise us that a little parental caution will guarantee a safe environment for small children on the Net.

    Then there is this, attributed to G. K. Chesterton:

    When men have come to the edge of a precipice, it is the lover of life who has the spirit to leap backwards, and only the pessimist who continues to believe in progress.

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    *** Privacy in an age of data
    From Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    The battle for privacy, waged upon fields of data, will be lost. The reason it will be lost is that, precisely insofar as our social functioning becomes a matter of interacting data, to that degree there is nothing to which a decent concept of privacy can attach. There exists, on the fields of data, neither a self whose dignity and privacy is worth defending, nor a self that a global data processing system is capable of defending. If privacy does not apply, in the first instance, to the socially embedded individual--if it does not first flourish as an ideal in intimate, personal spaces--it cannot flourish in cyberspace.

    Privacy is inseparable from a certain willingness to lower one's eyes and to hold sacred what one knows about the other person. When it has become a mere drive toward anonymity, it necessarily vanishes as a meaningful standard for our life together, signaling instead our disconnection.

    In other words, the ideal of privacy gains substance only in those primary contexts where we know each other well enough to care. Given such contexts as a dominant reality of our lives, we may be able to manage the more impersonal problems of "data privacy." Lacking such contexts, we cannot win; we will be assimilated to the realities of our technology, where one bit looks just like another.

    All this requires some unpacking.

    Proposals to slap a universal identification num