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                       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.

    Goto table of contents

    *** 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 number on all Americans
    continue to multiply, and the defenders of privacy continue to be
    incensed.  Of course, we already have social security numbers, but the
    issue has to do with how widely, and in what ways, we will be forced to
    use (and therefore to divulge) such numbers--and who, as a result, will
    gain access to all the information indexed by the numbers.  Proponents of
    a more widespread use aim, for example, at reduction of welfare fraud,
    control of immigration, regulation of voting, standardization of birth
    certificates and drivers licenses, and identification of financial
    transactions for tax and other purposes.  Privacy advocates tend to decry
    all these uses.

    With every new terrorist attack, real or imagined, the rhetoric on both sides reaches a higher pitch. Currently, following the crash of TWA Flight 800, the federal government is proposing selective electronic screening of airline passengers as an anti-terrorist measure. Clearly, these background checks will serve their purpose only so far as passengers can be unambiguously identified, and so far as the identification is linked to telltale information about the "risks" the passengers pose. Of course, that means inconvenience at the airport, but it will be tolerated as long as airline users are frightened.

    My fears about loss of privacy probably exceed those of most people. But my sympathy for many defenders of privacy could not be more troubled. They don't seem to realize that their one-sided enthusiasm for the electronic media as a revolutionary new vehicle for social functions almost inescapably implies those very threats to privacy they are now battling.

    To transfer society's operations to intelligent machinery is to guarantee an intense pressure for their rationalization--that is, for a globalization of information flow, a mutual articulation of all the mechanisms of this flow, and a kind of universal consistency throughout what will increasingly become a single System. Where the emphasis is upon efficiency, speed, and programmed logic, it could hardly be otherwise. Logic insists on this sort of rationalization.

    If you must revel in thoughts about the speeded-up publication of scholarly journals, efficiently retrievable information from global databases, or a new, friction-free marketplace--that is well and good. But don't imagine that you and I will readily slip ourselves into this well oiled machine, accomplishing our own purposes, without first adapting ourselves to its requirements.

    I am not saying that it is utterly impossible to build some safeguards for privacy into the System, but only that such efforts will be exceedingly difficult, running counter as they do to the entire, exhilarated drive for speed, efficiency, and reductive logic that the System is otherwise all about. And, in any case, our "wrestling with the devil" is not enough; it is even more important to establish the positive ground upon which privacy can be established as a deeply felt value.

    Interestingly, the same Net has produced not only our acute fears about
    loss of privacy, but also serious concerns about unhealthy anonymity.
    Like so many apparent paradoxes of cyberspace, this is no accident.  The
    two worries belong together.  A prevailing impersonality and anonymity is
    precisely what makes everyone else a potential threat to me.  This threat
    provokes counter-measures; where no one is known, everyone must be
    suspiciously noted.  An atmosphere of suspicion in turn heightens the
    desire for anonymity.

    Putting it a little differently: the airline terrorist with a peculiar personality, reclusive, anti-social habits, and a behavior centered around the construction of bombs in his bedroom would not very likely go wholly unnoticed in a closely knit, locally centered community where most people knew each other. Apprehending the terrorist in such a context would be a far different matter, involving far less universal and impersonal methods, than the federal airline authorities must now contemplate.

    Such a traditional community would, of course, present its own privacy challenges. They might well be forbidding, but at least they would be the right challenges, holding out the possibility for evolution toward a more humane society. Privacy might then eventually become--as in a humane society it must become--the result of a widespread respect for the sovereignty and distinctive individuality of the other person, rather than a retreat into the cipher-like, faceless anonymity that is emerging as the cyberspatial ideal.

    Where privacy-as-mere-anonymity becomes an issue, there has already been a social failure. This failure, reflected in the absence of rooted, supportive contexts that can accept and "carry" the idiosyncratic individual, only worsens as we begin to rely for our privacy on the placeless, nameless medium of the Net. Where our aim is to escape recognition by other human beings, it isn't much use complaining that these others fail to recognize what is worthy of discrete respect in us.

    Clearly, however--as the terrorist example shows--even the strongest local community has its limits when it comes to accepting and carrying the deviant individual. Beyond these limits, the not-always-welcome arm of the government is likely to intervene, and privacy in these dealings is not likely to be highest on the priority list. The less the carrying capacity of the local community, the greater the presence of government. Where community finally dissolves into pervasive anonymity, government intrusion unavoidably becomes dominant, leading to the paradox of anonymity alongside egregious invasions of privacy.

    This is not to say that what we call a "traditional" community--whenever and wherever it may have existed--is the ideal we should pursue. We doubtless must create new possibilities suitable for our own place and time. The point is only that it makes no sense to beat the drums for privacy while failing to question our technological commitments at a fundamental level. Through our infatuation with technology--whether or not we oppose universal identification numbers and background checks at boarding gates--we are conspiring in the continued objectification of the human being as data. This is exactly what a genuine sense for privacy, rooted in respect for the dignity of the individual, would have rebelled against.

    Unfortunately, the defense of anonymity becomes a necessity so far as we have already redefined society and our own lives in terms of data transactions. But there is no victory in that direction. Just as there is no end to the technological arms race between security software and security-invading software--but only an ever more shrill contest whose stakes are continually raised--so, too, once we have reconceived our lives as bodies of data, there is only an endless technical struggle over these bit-corpses. Those who carry out the struggle (fighting on both sides of the many unresolvable issues) do a necessary and important work, for which I am thankful. But it will all be for nothing if we cannot find a way to bring the corpses alive again.

    Much the same thing, incidentally, can be said about the crusade against
    censorship.  (In fact, has been said.  See the
    "censorship" entries in the the
    topical index
    to NETFUTURE.)
    The paradox of acute threats to privacy within a medium of anonymity is
    matched by the paradox of censorship in a medium that (according to one of
    the hallowed doctrines of the Net) "treats censorship like a malfunction,
    and routs around it."

    Again, the apparently incompatible facts belong together. To adapt various family, educational, and communal functions to a faceless, unstable, unrooted, and unruly medium such as the Net is to guarantee rising demands for censorship, lest the existing institutions simply disappear into the anarchic cauldron of cyberspace. There is an indisputable validity to these demands, as also to the insistence upon their danger. And there is the same endless technological arms race that bypasses the real issues while making them ever more acute.

    The only escape from escalating conflict is a reassessment of our relation to technology at a far deeper level than is suggested by the question, "Can data be kept private?" or its companion question, "Can data be kept free of censorship?"

    [This is the first part of a two-part article. In the second part I will try to sketch a positive context for the establishment of reasonable privacy. The concerns mentioned in this first part obviously require such a context if they are to carry any force.]

    Stephen L. Talbott

    Go to part 2 of privacy article
    Go to part 3 of privacy article

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    *** About this newsletter

    Copyright 1996 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached.

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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #28 :: September 25, 1996

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