This week I’d like to talk about privacy. In a post-911 world, privacy is an elusive ideal. The Patriot Act alone gave government broad powers to be more intrusive in our private lives. And while those powers, arguably, can become too intrusive, few people would argue that 911 didn’t change the way we think about such things.
Technology alone has changed our ideas about privacy – not James Bond-like technical advancements (although I’m sure spy equipment isn’t what it used to be), but reasonable technology designed to share information about our lives.
At any given moment, I can get on the Internet and check a number of social networks to determine the “status” of my friends. For instance, I have a friend who lives miles from me. We don’t see each other very often. But because of Facebook I know that he’s concerned about the deaths of two campers from his area, that he watches the Food Network and a vampire series on HBO, that he thinks the movie Jumper is one of the worst movies of all time, and that he just bought a computer case at a bargain price. Not to mention a raft of other personal information that he freely announces to anyone who dares to call him a friend.
And, by the way, that’s another aspect to the changes in our new privacy culture – acquaintances are now considered “friends.” Back to the online social network of Facebook for a second, it tells me I have 273 “friends.” And while I’m excited to know that, the truth is that I don’t know over half the people listed as my “friend.” In fact, I have about a dozen really good friends and yet, for some unknown reason, I don’t mind at all posting all sorts of personal information about myself to 273 people – some of whom I’ve never even met.
The meanings of privacy are many in today’s world. Just under our laws alone, privacy can mean several different things. It can mean the sorts of things that a government can know about you or personal information about you that it has discrete access to. The same can be said for a bank or a credit union or a social network. For heaven’s sake, your grocery store knows everything you purchase from those little key chain discount cards they provide.
Most legal scholars and politicians know the meaning of privacy as an absolute right, in and of itself. While a right to privacy is found nowhere in the United States Constitution, the Supreme Court, in several controversial and split decisions, has determined that this right exists.
The first big case had to do with a right to privacy over contraception back in the 1960s. Prior to those days, only married people had legal access to contraception. The Court’s Griswold case declared that even unmarried people should have access based on a fundamental right to privacy inherent in the dignity of every human being.
The next big case dealt with the right to an abortion. Roe v. Wade became the litmus test for all privacy issues. This decision pronounced that a woman had the right to kill her unborn baby as a matter of privacy. And a more recent privacy case out of Texas moved the Court to rule that sexual practices between two consenting adults are constitutionally protected.
Of course, the problem with the spirit of these pronouncements is that a right to privacy is not absolute – not by its very nature and not when pitted against other fundamental rights.
What we really mean, when we talk about a right to privacy these days, falls into two categories. The first has to do with access. Promiscuous unmarried people wanted access to birth control that was once only sold to married couples, if at all. Women wanted unrestrained access to abortion procedures that was once only available to them under exigent circumstances. And homosexuals wanted access to social validation for their sexual behaviors once only offered to heterosexuals.
The second meaning has to do with confidentiality. Isn’t this what we really mean when most of us speak of privacy? Concerns over who has access to your social network, such as Facebook, isn’t about privacy. It’s about confidentiality – meaning we’ll share the most intimate details of our every-day lives with anyone as long as we approve of it. Privacy isn’t the issue. Evidently, we don’t really care what we’re telling other people. We just care who those people are.
I’m convinced that we’re moving into a time in world history where privacy no longer has any real meaning. True privacy will either be politicized or trivialized. Either way, privacy has become an anachronism.
For the Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero.