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)?