Privacy is Dead

Towards the end of my previous post I began to talk about the inevitability of a techno-anarchist future. Eventually we will have such powerful technology that is so widely available to the masses that it will be impossible to enforce any laws. It will be like living in a world full of wizards. Their vast powers allow them to do great good, and great harm. Those same powers also allow them to disguise or conceal anything beyond the point of deniability. If someone can snap their fingers to affect things on the other side of the world, you live in anarchy whether you like it or not.

You can already see this anarchy happening in the realm of intellectual property law. Our current technology gives us the wizard-like power to instantly, and deniably, distribute perfect copies of any digital data anywhere in the world at effectively no cost. No matter how many DMCAs there are, no matter how many RIAAs there are, they’ve already lost. The spread of information, of any kind, can not be stopped. The dam burst long ago, and can not be repaired.

What I find funny is that many people who agree the intellectual property damn has burst, do not also believe that the privacy dam is equally affected. The record and movie studios will be frustrated that they can not control who has access to their information, and people will laugh at them. Yet, these folks who are laughing will express the same exact frustrations when it comes to not being able to control access to their personal information.

It is as impossible to control access to your personal information as it is impossible for the old entertainment industry to control access to content. If you’re a privacy advocate, the number of early leaks of Hollywood movies on bittorrent should scare you.

There are a lot of arguments to be made for why we should have privacy. I agree with many of them. It’s not right for employers to make hiring decisions based on things like medical conditions or sexual orientations. It makes life a lot harder if annoying acquaintances are immediately aware of juicy details in your relationships. It’s not cool that stalkers have the ability to follow your every move, and make your life miserable.

If privacy were possible, I would love it for all the reasons above, as well as others. If people were able to choose which pieces of personal information were private, and which were public, that would be a perfect world. The fact is, it’s not a perfect world. It’s a very imperfect world. Rather than waste time in this futile and impossible battle for privacy, we should instead concentrate on developing ways to get on in a world without any privacy.

The first thing we need to do is implement much greater computer security systems with multi-factor authentication. Giving everyone a yubikey will go a long way towards allowing people to store personal data digitally, but also give them complete control over who can access which information under which circumstances. Too bad we are all relying on useless things like social security numbers and handwriting.

Also, people need to start realizing that the value of sharing information can often outweigh the costs. Look at the kinds of people you see on the TwiT podcasts. They are very public figures who are very digitally connected. They share all sorts of information about themselves directly, and it is trivial for a tech savvy person to get all of their pertinent information such as addresses and phone numbers. Yet, this kind of thing has only helped them, not hurt them. The sharing has made them more popular, allowed more people to connect with them, and their audience feels a much better relationship with them.

I can give some personal examples as well. As a podcaster, I have shared my phone number and address with many of our listeners. Those that do not know this information can acquire it trivially on the Internet. Despite sharing our address, nobody has stalked us. Instead, they just send us wonderful gifts. And despite sharing my phone number, nobody crank calls me. Instead, they call to meet up at various conventions and have a good time.

I saw today that some guy who lost American Idol was all over the news because he came out of the closet. How come he is on the front page, and the winner is nowhere to be seen? Because he shared information about himself. The benefit of sharing the information for him was tremendous. The harm, if there is any, is negligible by comparison. Even if there is some harm due to lack of privacy, it’s worth dealing with those problems in order to get the benefit of sharing.

In my opinion, the most fascinating field of scientific discovery right now is neuroscience. Thanks to things like the FMRI we are learning more and more every day about how the human mind actually works. The inevitable result of advancing this technology is that in the future, we will be able to read people’s minds. Not even your own thoughts will be protected from being shared. A world where minds can be read is a world that many people will be very uncomfortable living in, but it’s also an unavoidable reality.

The world can’t be perfect. If we want to have a free flow of information, that is going to necessarily include personal information whether we like it or not. Our society will be much better off if we give up the fight for privacy, and instead concentrate on developing strategies for coping in a world without it. If we continue to lean on privacy, we will collapse the day it disappears. If we can somehow learn to stand without it, then we can can let it go in peace.

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2 Responses to Privacy is Dead

  1. Lily says:

    You have just eloquently expressed everything I’ve been thinking for the past five years.

  2. I never equated privacy and premature leaking of intellectual property… but looking at it in this context, you are correct in the fears of information… along with the hypocrisy of privacy advocates that download bittorrent.

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