Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Her Story to Tell

-- By VanessaW - 11 May 2013


I found out my junior year of high school that one of my friends was being abused at home. I pleaded with her to get help, to report it to an adult who could actually do something. She refused. Finally, I told her that I would report it if she didn’t. She looked at me, straight-lipped, and told me that it was “her story to tell.” She was right, and though I kept tabs on the situation and stayed up late at night wondering if I was doing the right thing, I never told. Sometimes, I felt like it was my story too—when I’d spend my babysitting money on food for her because her stepmother refused to feed her, when she’d call me and ask me to hang out with her because she was scared to go home, when she finally ran to my family’s home after he’d beaten her one too many times. But she was the one who had seek help.

The Value of Privacy

It’s hard to explain exactly what it is about privacy that is so important. I’ve heard many people say that the only people who are really concerned about privacy are those who have something to hide, usually something that should be brought to light. Or as Mark Zuckerberg put it in a Washington Post editorial in 2010, “If people share more, the world will become more open and connected. And a world that’s more open and connected is a better world.” Ignoring the creepy vibe this statement emits, there are worthwhile arguments for why a world in which technology essentially tracks our movements and personalities is a good one. Most of them have to do with security. For instance, having cameras all over the streets of Boston led to the quick capture of one of the suspected Boston bombers. Without the photo identifications of the suspects, their capture may have taken a lot longer, and they may have even had a chance to commit another attack. Similarly, in several recent rape cases, the sharing and posting of photos of the attack or the victim led to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators. There is no reason to think that law enforcement use of facebook or gmail could not also lead to the beneficial arrests and prosecutions and make the world physically safer. There is no question that privacy allows people to commit terrible crimes, and a world without it would prevent and/or punish a great deal of them.

Perhaps this would work, if society could create a world of absolute transparency. If it wasn’t only the government or police that monitored the technology that eroded privacy—if, for instance, even citizen’s had instant access all the government systems and those systems also monitored all government actors—then perhaps, you could create a world that was relatively safe, both from malicious individual actors and malicious state actors. However, it’s doubtful technology like that could ever work, or that we could trust it even if it did, both because the system could be hacked and because there could be no absolute check on the government’s control of the system. Regardless, even if the system could be perfected and omniscient, it would not be desirable because the ability to watch those who do terrible things cannot be separated from the ability to watch those who’ve done nothing, and that invasion of privacy could never be worth the security it may buy.

There is an inherent value to privacy and the ability to control your story and how much of it any given person knows. It’s the private part of our lives that most shape who we are—those moments with friends at parties, the messages we send to each other about our personal lives, those written works (whether essays, journals or creative pieces) that we place in our skydrive, the books we read. These are things we don’t necessarily mean to give up our control over. We don’t want anyone to know exactly what we are doing at any given time. Yet, we have devices and use services that track, and possibly reveal, our thoughts, private communications, and movements. We have smartphones that know where we are at all times; we have facebook profiles that reveal our most important relationships; we have email accounts that can be monitored by the company that owns the server we use. And even if we have none of these things, we almost certainly have friends who do, and who give away all those parts of stories anyway. These private matters, and we choose to tell about them, and when we choose to tell, are part of who we are. The loss of the ability to tell that story intentionally and in the manner we want is significant in itself, even if our stories do nothing to incriminate us.


I came to realize this because of my friend. As I discovered later, other people had reported her father before. At one point, she found out investigators were coming to her home, and she ran away, living on the streets and couch-surfing with friends, at the age of fourteen, because she wasn’t read to tell anyone about her father. She did eventually tell her story and get away from her father, and when I asked her how she felt about it, she said she was glad she’d been able to do it herself. She didn’t need to be saved; she needed to save herself, and speaking out on her own was the only way she was able to get over what happened to her. Had I taken that from her, she may have been safe, but I would have stolen something that was fundamentally hers.

Other peoples' complaints hadn't worked before, and yours might not have done, either, for the same reason: she wasn't ready to cooperate, yet. She said so, and it's good that you listened.

I don't think the line is so straight, however, between your story of her story and the loss of privacy through badly-designed sharing. Mr Zuckerberg cheated people: they wanted a form of sharing private to them and their friends and he gave them instead one in which he could see everybody's access behavior as well as all the primary data for sharing. Because he never explicitly promised them what they thought they were getting, and always explained the real situation precisely in the terms of service they accepted without reading, this cheat was in no way illegal, but it was immoral and immensely destructive. Because it put him in possession of an immense real-time repository of people looking for, at, and with other people, eventually bugging the social lives of all the friends, family and associates of almost a billion people, his success in cheating bought him the friendship of all the spies and secret police in the world, along with most of the retailers. The spooks don't pay well, but they are good friends to have. The knuckle-crushers are not good friends to have, but you have to get along with them. The retailers, the pharmaborg, the media lords: these are the people he does business with. They respect and they loathe him. They have people to manage their appearance on his service, but they aren't anywhere near stupid enough actually to strip in his television studio, like their kids.

It's a very nasty, tragic story. But it's not the whole story of privacy, and it shouldn't be told that way. The specific harm he did, vast as it was, he did in a specific way, and it could be undone at small expense if we wanted to. That's what people need to know.


Webs Webs

r3 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:44:50 - IanSullivan
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