The ascendancy of the non-private person

non-private.jpgOK, I lied about no more wonky posts. Xeni's Facebook post reminded me of something. I want to float an idea about privacy as a commodity, vs. privacy as a right.

Tiger Woods, described frequently as a "very private" person, was unable to keep his private life private. Why? Because he interacted with non-private people. The reason Kim Kardashian and the Jersey Shore denizens have risen to positions of prominence in popular culture is because they each epitomize the non-private person. They have nothing to hide, so nothing that becomes public knowledge can hurt them. Ms. Kardashian can be urinated on in a sex tape and actually be helped in terms of being a public figure. My own ability to be effective as a transgender rights activist is because there's nothing anyone could expose about me that would deter me from my activism. That gives me enormous power over anonymous haters who vent their impotent fury at me to no avail. Their own fear of exposure (loss of privacy) is their greatest weakness. What does this mean for you, dear reader? Read on.

(images via WikiMedia Commons)

Although the US government has taken steps to protect privacy as a right since Louis Brandeis formalized the concept in 1890, there is always a clash with commercial interests who view privacy as a commodity. What we have seen is that those who want privacy are going to have to pay a lot for it, a trend that will continue to trickle down from public figures to the general public. Gated "communities," "identity theft protection" rackets, etc. are symptoms of the commodification of privacy.

At last year's Privacy Enhancing Technologies Symposium, there was a lot of debate about industry self-regulation vs. government regulation. "Wireless Advertising Messaging" (WAM) is something you'll be hearing a lot more about in coming years. The Nexus phone introduced yesterday is the clearest sign that marketers know that the future of advertising is on the mobile web and through local search. Heng Xu, John Bagby, and Terence Melonas of Penn State presented a paper at PETS on whether Fair Information Practice Principles (FIPP) compliance should be by policy or by design. This great theoretical paper lays out a good summary of the right vs. commodity debate:

"The first camp views privacy as a fundamental human right, like the right to liberty or life. Such fundamentalist position holds that privacy is tied to a cluster of rights, such as autonomy and dignity. The second camp holds privacy to be of instrumental rather than fundamental right; that is, the value of privacy comes because it sustains, promotes, and protects other things we value. In this view, privacy can be traded off because doing so will promote other values (e.g., personalization)."
The question then becomes this: what is the value of our privacy, and for what are we willing to trade our privacy? What will we pay to keep it? We are already seeing a cottage industry for people who pay to DELETE F***ING EVERYTHING, such as Web 2.0 Suicide Machine and Both were blocked by Facebook this week for violating their terms of service. This arms race is going to escalate as businesses continue to maximize effectiveness of their messaging through more and more personalized messages and technologies. The amount of money at stake is enormous, which means the rights at stake are enormous as well.

Short of going off the grid, what do you think we should do to protect our right to privacy? Or if you see it as a commodity, what can we do to maximize its value so we can make more in trade (vs. bartering it to businesses like Facebook in exchange for using their service)?


  1. I’d say privacy is like security or property — it’s a fundamental right that one has to pay for, at the same time. Those with little to lose install a door lock, others hire security guards. There are also monks who give up on all belongings, but not everyone can (or should be forced to).

  2. If you hold something dear as a value, I believe framing it as a commodity is a losing proposition.

    It’s why “choice” is on the losing end of so many deep rights/liberties arguments.

    Putting privacy in the commodity camp is “selling your soul to the devil.”

  3. There is an incredible body of US and international law supporting privacy as a fundamental human right. If an individual commodifies it, that is his choice, but it doesn’t change the default paradigm for everyone else. better legal structures are needed for data protection in the US to put us at least in the same ballpark as Canada and the EU. The current state is disgraceful.

  4. Privacy is nice. Free speech is still more important.

    If you happen to have information about someone (other than legally protected information– doctor/patient, etc) and tell someone else…want that to be a crime?
    Whoops, told the truth about someone– straight to jail for you.

    1. So, that means that if I tell a million telemarketers your phone number, or give a stalker your address, nothing bad should happen to me? Those things are true facts about you. What about my telling your employer that you’re gay if you’re in a job situation where disclosing that fact might get you fired? While I myself am more of a public person, I am very sensitive to the need to treat other people’s information – whatever it may be – as their property, to be disposed of as they wish.

  5. I worry that our desire for privacy will lead us to the dystopian scenario of Brin’s Transparent Society: the cost of maintaining privacy will be so high while the cost of violating it is so low that we simply accept the lie that the powerful do not regularly violate the privacy of the powerless to maintain the illusion that privacy is actually possible. We see scenario after scenario where we assume privacy and anonymity, yet tools allow us to break through that and identify individuals through the pattern they don’t realize they’ve left behind. Often simply determining whether privacy has been violated requires that privacy be violated.

    I’m not certain that genuine privacy will even be possible in the relatively near future.

  6. Privacy is far less valuable than anonymity. Privacy still means the power is in someone else’s hands. Laws on privacy just provide some recourse for those who can afford a lawyer. And Internetally speaking, privacy is in inverse proportion to presence and anonymity is in direct proportion to technical competence.

    Of course, it all depends on where you live too. An American activist’s concerns about privacy and anonymity are very different from what an Iranian activist’s would be.

    Does that mean that if we accept a lower standard of privacy rights for ourselves, then others will suffer for our complacency?

  7. What I find interesting is how Corporations use privacy and financial laws to hide their actions.

    So for example when you see an ad on TV promoting a view or attacking a congress person at the end of it they will say something about who paid for it. Then the corporations started giving names to their front groups like “The Committee for Good Government against Bad Things”. So then they had rules that said, “The true source of funding is…” But even that got murky if it was something like the Koch Family foundation (Which means nothing to people unless they go to and find out that they are a right wing foundation that makes its money in energy.)

    Would you look at the Tea Partiers protesting against health insurance reform differently if you knew that they were funded by health insurance companies? You might not know that because some of the 501c 3s organizing them don’t tell you until a year later who funded them. By then the media has been fooled, the messages are out and the public can’t do anything.

    Corporations want personhood and use all the personhood privacy rules to protect them is that okay?

    Corporations also use financial rules to hide information.
    Think about all the information that big finance corporation were able to hide from their own shareholders. They simple said, “It’s proprietary or ‘We don’t break that information out’ and nobody knows what is really going on until something crashes –and the taxpayers have to pick up the mess.

  8. The benefits of living on the grid, for me, outweigh the dangers of it. Some aspects of my life are data points “out there”. Some ads may be targeted at me. But I can find what I want, where I want it, at a price I’ll pay. I will exchange information for exposure to ads for things I might be interested in. I don’t put online things I feel are very private, this is just common sense. I also feel that there is some “security” in numbers. I’m not very interesting overall to those who may hunt private info, there are others who have more to offer. The upshot is, while I watch what is happening, I don’t feel overly concerned. Yet.

  9. Thank you, Andrea, for reminding me of Brad Neely’s, “Wizard People, Dear Reader”. For I still have so many episodes to go.

    Transparency leads to seeing a world that may have been influenced as much as possible without the means to do so as a private figure. Privatized influence seems to also effect, but alternate methods are used, it isn’t the person so much as the product of the person which can be measured, although, it could be argued that they are one in the same. A way just has to be found, a way to get paid for whatever you’re putting out there. I can only hope that my 231 friends on facebook would want to buy a real book from me once it is finished or would better trust buying whatever I am selling if I ever sell something that they’d want to buy. In contrast, someone not on facebook would hope that their work alone could be sold with little to no knowledge about their day to day life being known by the consumer.

  10. What an incredibly short-sighted view. If you really think you don’t have anything to hide, that just means you aren’t looking hard enough.

    I have a ton of things to hide. None of them illegal in most states, but nevertheless there are things about my life I’d rather keep compartmentalized, for reasons of not being anyone else’s goddamn business. Youthful indiscretions. Betrayals of friendships. Hell, I’d rather not see my mostly-religious mother connect me with this username. It wouldn’t particularly harm anything if she did, but out of respect for her feelings I try to keep it private.

    How many embarrassing teen moments does the average person have? How many women have been raped, and now just want to put it behind them? How many people would be fired instantly if their drunken escapades were known to all? How many children thrown out into the street if their parents knew they were questioning their religion or sexual orientation? Or GENDER, Ms. activist? And no, “Sign up here or we’ll email your family the results of your STD test!” is NOT an acceptable solution.

    YOU might not think you need privacy. Wonderful. Mazel tov. But I think the rest of the world and I still do. Not as a commodity. Not as an opt-in. Not as the few tattered scraps that police and DHS forces haven’t found a loophole around yet. Actual, stay-out-of-our-lives-by-default behavior.

  11. It seems to me we have two choices;

    1) Don’t fuck up

    2) If you do fuck up, do so very publicly.

    Everybody likes to see a “perfect” person fail. Don’t be that person.

  12. Brandeis was right. Privacy is a fundamental right. You can’t have genuine liberty without a right to privacy. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that privacy and liberty are really the same thing — two sides of the same coin, as it were. Get rid of one and you destroy the other. Privacy is just liberty on the defense; liberty is just privacy on the offense. Privacy is how we protect our liberty from those who would infringe upon it. Liberty is how we advance our private interests. Give up your privacy and you give up your freedom.

    I think the problem is that we often confuse privacy with anonymity or reticence. They’re not the same thing. Privacy simply means that you get to say who gets to stick their nose into your business, where, when, and how far. You can think of privacy as the curtains on your bedroom window: You can open them or close them anytime you wish, open them just a crack or open them wide — you can even leave them open all the time, or leave them closed all the time — it’s up to you. Privacy gives YOU control over your own curtains. Privacy doesn’t force you to leave your curtains closed all the time; it just gives you that option. In other words, privacy gives people the *right* to be reticent if they so choose; it doesn’t *require* them to be reticent. An invasion of privacy occurs when someone opens your curtains without your consent; or (even worse) when someone rips your curtains off the windows so you can never close them. Just because you have chosen to open your curtains does not mean that you have given up your privacy, because you still have the ability to close them if you ever get uncomfortable with the Peeping Toms you’re sure to attract.

    I think there’s a voyeuristic impulse built into human nature: If you leave your curtains open, you can be certain that someone’s gonna look in. In fact, if you leave your curtains open, many people will interpret that as an invitation to look in. So, those people who choose to leave their curtains open for the whole world to see the most intimate details of their private lives are probably inviting trouble for themselves in the long run; but that is their right. Privacy gives them that right. But privacy also gives people the right to close their curtains tight with the expectation that no one — not the government, nor the press, nor any private company or organization, nor any religious institution, nor their neighbors, nor their relatives, nor strangers on the internet, nor anyone else — will try to peek through those curtains, or force them open, or tear them down. It’s this ability to close the curtains whenever we choose that protects our liberty from those who would infringe upon it.

    As for anonymity, it is simply a tool that helps you protect your privacy — you’re free to use this tool or not as you see fit. Privacy doesn’t *demand* that you remain anonymous; but anonymity certainly makes it easier for you to prevent people from invading your privacy and infringing upon your liberty.

  13. “He valued his privacy” means he was gay.
    “He enjoyed his privacy” means he was a raging queen.

    –from the movie “Closer”

  14. We need to produce more introverts. The very idea of a “non-private person” is anathema to an introvert. Gah.

  15. Fantastic post.

    This sort of reminded me of an article I read about 5 years ago, about how people seem to have contradictory values.
    eg. those who support the death penalty often oppose abortion. those who support abortion often oppose the death penalty.
    Those who are most concerned with online privacy are those who regularly engage in social media, while people who do not use social media sites are not concerned about privacy.

    The second half of sapere_aude’s (#19) post is dead on. It’s about choice.
    Privacy is a right, and if it’s not, then it really should be. But privacy does not mean having someone else sew my curtains shut, it means putting their controls in my hands.

    Think about YouTube clips vs. Surveillance footage.
    One is something I am releasing on my own terms. I shot it, I edited it, and I released it. I got to decide what was, and more importantly, what was not released. That is significantly different from from the surveillance cameras spread throughout the city.

    As an artist, I kind of have to be in the latter category. I can’t hide in my studio and expect to get noticed, I have to go out, and expose myself to the public.
    Social media allows me to have a degree of control over that image. It allows me to have a more public image. If I suddenly want to have a more private image, I can simply stop updating.
    I can’t exactly opt out of appearing on surveillance cameras, cellphone logs and wiretaps.
    That’s the difference.

  16. So, “there’s nothing anyone could expose about me that would deter me from my activism”? Then surely you won’t mind telling me your credit numbers, expiration dates, name as printed on the cards, PINs, and oh, the little special numbers on the back too. And if it isn’t too much trouble may I also have the time and date of your next sexual encounter? I’d like to be there to film it and then share it with the world. And your address please. I gather you won’t object to a live feed from your bathroom. Okay, I’m being crass, but trying to make a point. I suspect a lack of money and an excess of undesired distractions would indeed impact your effectiveness as an activist. I don’t see privacy as a commodity or a right. I’m certainly fond of the noble concept behind “rights”, but in practice, how can something take can be taken away from you be a right? I’ve long considered privacy to be a luxury. I’m loathe to share personal information of any sort with strangers. I do not favor assisting people or corporate entities in their efforts to quantify me. The idea of being identified as a member of a market demographic is repugnant. I shouldn’t be surprised, seeing as vanity knows no bounds, but I am nonetheless amazed at the success of social networking sites. What a boon for marketers, advertisers, and social engineers. Am I alone in thinking there is an agenda to all those dopey little quizzes and surveys and whatnot? I place a great value on privacy, and thus am always mindful of the possible ramifications of sharing information. However, I do make exceptions. For example,I buy goods via Amazon. Also, I’ve now publicly shared my private feelings concerning privacy.

    1. @Dante#23: If personal information about me were exposed, it would not deter me from activism. That doesn’t mean I plan to expose it myself voluntarily. Several great comments above explain that important distinction.

      For the record, I consider privacy a fundamental right and actually do a lot to inform trans people about protecting their privacy following legal changes of name and sex, such as having your original birth certificate record sealed and what-not. However, I think it’s important for everyone to realize that privacy is being commodified, so they can think about how much they should value it (even if they trade it away for something).

      Comments 10, 14, 16, 19, and 22 are worth reading twice.

  17. I wonder how many us have any idea what is in the Terms of Service of any of the sites or services we use everyday (of course, you’d have to be lawyer to understand the average TOS, but never mind).

    In our innocence, we sign away more than I’m sure we would want to if we realized the full consequences.

    However, even being moderately aware of the full consequences, how many us would be now willing to forgo these sites and services?

    Bingo! The system has us. You’re either with us or you’re off grid!

  18. well let’s shoot down the airport full body scanners. TAlk about privacy – I don’t care so much if they see my body but how bout xraying my body every time I fly. CANCER

  19. If Kardashian wasn’t “harmed” by release of a sex tape, then what’s her basis for suing for $5 million?

    That would seem to undercut you thesis.

  20. What did they do in olden days? To protect their privacy
    Picked up the shotgun and said something like
    “Get off my property before I fill ya with some buckshot”
    Old Hollywood would protect their star property in yesterday year for fear of a scandal; today, they encourage leaks for -more press, more tweets, more money. More and more actors and actresses call the media on themselves than ever before.
    They are relinquishing their right to privacy for fame.
    Than once they become famous -they want their privacy back.
    The writer is correct about Tiger Woods “You can’t expect to stay private in a world filled with non -private people.” All those Tiger Babes were looking for a reason to come out and say “Yes I was with him.”
    In the Information Age its very hard to stay private.
    Not with every Tom, Dick and Harry walking around with video camera’s -Citizen Journalist with blogs and nothing to write about.
    The internet is wonderful but it has created a firestorm when it comes to privacy.
    Yep, the shotgun on the porch is proabably going to become the norm.

  21. > What I find interesting is how Corporations use privacy
    > and financial laws to hide their actions.

    I recently ran into this with my Homeowners Association (which is a non-profit corporation). While state law, and my HOA’s by-laws, require that all homeowners within the HOA have the right to view the HOA’s records, they get around this by (1) requiring approval of the HOA board of directors, (2) having the management company charge $75/hour for a records search, and (3) turn accounts over to their attorneys, who are not required to disclose information.

    # 1 and # 2 makes it impossible for a home owner to audit and/or investigate the HOA.

    # 3 means that everything disclosed by the attorneys is confidential, and cannot be used against the HOA. But anything disclosed to the attorneys can be used by the HOA against the homeowners.

    I found out about the “attorney loophole” when my HOA filed a lawsuit against me. When I contacted them to find out why, I was told they could not disclose that information — nor any information about my account — to me. It wasn’t until the first day of the trial, nearly a year later, that I learned why I was being sued. The reasons they told me pre-trial, and the reasons they gave the court at trial, were different. (FYI: their tactic worked, and I lost the case).

    Meanwhile, the HOA has vast resources (paid for by the home owners) to gather information on us. They know where we live. And where we bank.

    And, for example, I’ve seen court records proving that the HOA’s attorneys obtained a credit report on another homeowner (and then charged that homeowner for the credit check!) after successfully suing him. He is currently filing legal action to view the HOA’s financial records, which by law we’re supposed to have access to anyway.

  22. Non-Private person? Really? It seems more appropriate to call the person a social bully willing to use the threat of exposure to extort the person who trusted them and if that doesn’t work then collect some public attention via the exposure.

  23. I think the collected records of your actions should be considered a literary work and subject to the same copyright restrictions as other literary works.

  24. I just see this as a commentary on the state of media these days. Oversupply of “TV News” shows, creates a very high demand for content (you know, that filler that they put in between advertisements to trick you into watching the next batch of ads?). Typically very low supply of real news means that these crap shows have to go make up things that are newsworthy.

    Proof? The biggest news story on new year’s day around here attempted to create controversy around the pronunciation of “2010” – is it “twenty-ten”, or “two thousand ten”?

  25. What I think we need is apps that generate false personas. Personally, I prefer local apps as opposed to web apps (for privacy reasons, of course). The only way any of us will ever be able to defend our privacy is to be proactive and not give information in the first place.

  26. Privacy is a social fiction, not a right. We *choose* to be private; society does not automatically assume that we are private. If my pants fall down in public, then I get busted for Indecent Exposure, even though it’s everyone *else* on the street who “violated my privacy”

  27. Outstanding post!

    For almost year I worked at an internet company whose users would often write in to complain about privacy issues, and one of my jobs was to deal with those. This made it clear to me that most people think much less carefully about their privacy than you might guess given how much they say they care about it. This means that now when I first encounter blog posts about Facebook’s latest privacy scandal or other such issues, I usually wince and go “People are so stupid!”. Not this time.

    Like a couple other people, I will say I also really like Sapere Aude’s comment #19 (except possibly the first paragraph).

    Yes, privacy is about control over information about you.

    This means that, if you care about privacy, then you should only introduce information about you into a new system (be is a new group of people you have met, a new website you joined, or a new business you now deal with) when you have a decent understanding of how that system will propagate that information. “Privacy violations” happen when the system propagates information in a way that the person did not anticipate. Whether this non-anticipation is caused by the person not doing their homework (understanding the system well, exploiting its inputs as well as possible) or by abrupt and unanounced or unpredictable changes in the system, depends on the case. But in my experience, more often than not it’s the former rather than the latter.

    How much privacy you can expect around the actions you take in meatspace (going somewhere, buying something, meeting with someone) varies. I think it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not reasonable to expect privacy in a public space. I don’t get why people dislike CCTV cameras (other than for how some of them are taxpayer-funded but don’t reduce crime or anything). For the same reasons that I as a [mostly amateur] photographer feel free to photograph you in a public place, you should feel free to film me in a public place. No big deal (unless we do things like use the images in an advertisement or something. Model releases exist for a reason).

    I can imagine a map of an area, colored by how much privacy you can expect. The streets are red (no privacy), your bedroom is blue (lots of privacy), and other areas are yellow or green. I could also imagine a web-browser that uses similar color-coding to remind you of just how visible something will be when you post it through whatever text or upload box you are currently typing into.

    Given the rise of modern technologies, though, the colors are shifting. Yellow areas are getting redder, green areas are getting yellower, and blue areas are getting greener. This means that if you want to keep your information from disseminating, you have to be more mindful of where you emit it to, and how. We live in the information age, where any public fact (anything that can be found on Google or observed in the street) can be connected with any other public fact, so even the red areas have become redder. Non-public facts, such as gossip and medical records and your credit history and shopping preferences, are also becoming more accessible in their respective networks. It doesn’t mean that we are losing privacy. It just means that the rules of the information-dissemination systems are changing, and it takes a little bit of thought (and maybe even some reading once in a while) to make sure that your actions cause your information to only disseminate in the ways you are willing to accept.

  28. @Andrea#24:To clarify, my impression is that it is information in a general sense that is being commodified, not privacy specifically. Somewhere within the set of general information, with no clear line of demarcation whatsoever, lies “private information”. I gather that what constitutes “private information” depends on who you ask and what their motivations are. I in no way opposed the idea of privacy as a right, but I am skeptical. It concerns me when people say “It’s my right!”, for it often leads me to conclude that they believe that their rights are granted and supported by an external agency such as a godd or a government. I think that the concepts and principles that one values must be nurtured, maintained, and monitored from within. In the instance of privacy, which I value, I for one am not relying on anyone or anything other than myself to protect and defend it. Incidentally, a very intriguing post and kudos to you for your activism.

  29. > I think it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not reasonable to
    > expect privacy in a public space. I don’t get why people dislike
    > CCTV cameras (other than for how some of them are taxpayer-
    > funded but don’t reduce crime or anything).
    > For the same reasons that I as a [mostly amateur] photographer
    > feel free to photograph you in a public place, you should feel
    > free to film me in a public place.

    There’s a difference between being observed (and even photographed) in public, and being tracked.

    Government CCTVs enable The State to track your movements with ease, and do so years after-the-fact.

    And while The State feels free to take your picture, let us know what happens when you photograph an armed agent of The State.

  30. Privacy and anonymity are extremely important because they will prevent the government and big corporates (who own the politicians) from identifying whistleblowers and activists who try to expose corruption or abuse of power.

    The defense of privacy is the first line of defense against totalitarianism.

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