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The promise, and pitfalls, of boundaries

Privacy has always been an essential need for humans. Do the conveniences and dangers of the digital age change that?

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Privacy is a word that sounds a tad scandalous. If there isn’t a TV show with the name yet, there soon will be – one in which secrets are whispered, conspiracies hatched, assignations arranged. But while some people use privacy to misbehave, privacy is also where original thinking occurs, new ideas are considered, and the preposterous is entertained. When someone is looking over your shoulder, you are less likely to ask “what if?” or to mull something so crazy it just might work. Privacy, moreover, is crucial in spiritual uplift, which is achieved in quiet solitude. 

Poets and inventors need privacy. So do revolutionaries. If not for the privacy of conversations, letters, and meetings among activists in the 18th century, the movement that gave birth to America might not have happened. Imagine the alarms that would have sounded when a colonial-era MI6 examined metadata showing that J. Adams of Massachusetts consulted T. Jefferson of Virginia who pinged B. Franklin of Pennsylvania

Privacy is also a tool for asserting our story and not the story the public thinks it knows. The European concept of a “right to be forgotten” tries to honor the idea that reputations should not forever be defined by something said or done in the past – a minor infraction, an ill-considered statement – that lives forever on what seems to be an eternal Web.

The Web, of course, is a tremendous convenience. There are big advantages to websites knowing your preferences and pinpointing your geolocation. But some of the solicitations that result are creepy, and knowing that you are being tracked can be unsettling.

Even more unsettling is when a government amasses mountains of data without probable cause and then slices and dices it to find one. You may not agree with Edward Snowden’s spilling of the surveillance secrets of the National Security Agency, but his publishing partner, journalist Glenn Greenwald, had a point when he said that “we’re supposed to know virtually everything about what they [the government] do: That’s why they’re called public servants. They’re supposed to know virtually nothing about what we do: That’s why we’re called private individuals.” 

In a Monitor cover story (click here to read it), Sara Miller Llana and Isabelle de Pommereau dive into the movement by Europeans to put boundaries around what public and private eyes know about us. The European view diverges, at least for now, from the more laissez-faire one in the United States. The danger in the European approach is of blocking vital information, of creating what George Orwell termed a “memory hole” down which inconvenient information disappears. Lawmakers and judges must be careful not to allow individuals and corporations to so manage their public past that they dupe people in the present.

Whether it is out of interest, concern, or curiosity, humans have always watched humans. For just as long, we’ve pulled down the shades and asked to be left alone. So there’s a balance that’s needed. Properly done, the privacy movement can help curb the excesses of the era of big data.

John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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