Law in the Internet Society

Why People Only Care About Privacy in the Private Sphere

-- By VanessaWheeler - 16 Oct 2012


It is no secret to anyone in our class that we are being spied on. It is no secret that our facebooks do not belong to us, that our photos and status updates and posts can all be monitored. It is no secret that our gmail accounts can be read and distributed at any time; it even says so in the terms and conditions, if we’d bothered to read them. It is no secret to us or to anyone else that’s a paying attention that our so-called fundamental right to privacy does not extend to the Web.

What is a secret is why we don’t care.

Privacy in the Private Sphere

There is no question that most of us value the concept of privacy. Most individuals get annoyed if they think a friend is listening in on a personal conversation; most people will turn their computer away from prying eyes if they are writing, reading, or looking at someone they considered personal. It’s clear that there are at least certain people who we want privacy from and certain times when we want it.

For instance, most of us know that facebook mines and sells our data to advertisers and corporations. One could argue that facebook could make an even larger profit if it sold our information about our internet activities to people in our own lives. Imagine how much suspicious spouses might pay to know whose facebook pages their husbands or wives were looking at and for how long they looked. Imagine how much parents might pay to get their children’s friend list and see all their messages. Imagine how much an employer might pay to have access to all your facebook photos and information, even when privacy settings are at their highest. Yet, facebook would never openly do this because I think there are very few people who would continue to use facebook if important people in their lives could essentially spy on them. Why? Because there would be consequences. I doubt most people are willing to have the people who directly affect them be able to see all their secrets, to behave according to the information we don’t want them to know. Everyone has someone that want to keep certain information from, even if in reality we have nothing that serious to hide.

Privacy in the Public Sphere

This extreme sense of personal privacy does not seem to translate well into more public aspects of the internet realm. To be sure, no one likes the idea that corporations or governments looking into their internet activities. I’m sure most people would prefer to have all the services they currently have without any of the surveillance. Yet, even when we know the surveillance is there, few of us are deleting our facebooks and gmail accounts or trading in our iphones. Instead, most people seem to shrug and say, “well, that’s not ideal, but it doesn’t affect me.”

And that’s just it. The difference between our few close associates and the entire corporate and governmental world seeing our information is that one has direct consequences and a direct effect on our relationships with the people that matter to us, and the other, at least in most of our minds, has no negative effect at all beyond the spying itself. After all, why should it matter that our data is being sold to corporations? They don’t know me, and they have no effect on my life. The most they can do is throw ads my way for products I’m more likely to want. Having grown up in a web society where ads are inevitable, it seems almost a benefit to have advertisers that know enough about me to only show me things I might actually want. And governments? Sure, that’s a little creepier, but I’m not involved in anything illegal and I have nothing to hide, so while it may affect a few criminals to have their information made available to governments, the rest of us innocent people have nothing to worry about and probably aren’t even being spied on all that much.

In truth, I think the issue is that most of us see the world in terms of individuals, with ourselves at the center. We don’t think about the society we’re building; we don’t think about the value of the abstract privacy we’re losing; we don’t think about the tyranny we are potentially running head-long into. We don’t think about the control we’re giving up, likely because few of us actually exercise as much control over or lives as we like to think and when we do, we do so absentmindedly. Instead, we think about what others do in terms of their consequences on us. We wouldn’t want our spouses looking into facebook browsing histories or have had our parents reading our messages to friends or have our employers checking out our spring break photos and status updates about work, because we recognize the power we’d lose there. We recognize that giving away our privacy in that respect could have immediate and serious consequences for us, and would subsequently either limit our ability to use that social medium or limit our activities outside it.

To most of us, I think the consequences of allowing the government or corporations to spy on us are much less real. As long as we’re not involved in anything illegal, we think that if the government has access to our data, nothing happens to us. With corporations, we feel there is even less possibility of consequences from spying. We don’t see how much control governments and corporations are gaining from this spying, because see how little we ourselves as individuals are losing in our own minds. Most of us are horrified when presented in books with a society like the one in 1984, yet few of us realize that our attitudes about privacy today may lead us to a society very much like it.


Webs Webs

r4 - 23 Aug 2014 - 19:31:22 - EbenMoglen
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