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Modern field guide to security and privacy

Opinion: How digital voyeurism is destroying privacy

Our inability to turn away when hackers and digital eavesdroppers publish someone's intimate details online encourages others to do the same, chipping away at everyone's ability to keep secrets.

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When people lament that privacy is dead or dying, they typically point fingers outwards, saying that government and corporate surveillance deserve all the blame. But as recent events highlight, our urge for online voyeurism plays an important role in the erosion of privacy.

As the Ashley Madison hack had the Internet gawking over details of the possible infidelity of its members, another lurid tragedy was going viral thanks to a woman live tweeting the breakup of a couple sitting next to her on an airplane. Both are examples of people succumbing to their baser instincts and failing to look away when when someone's personal life is spilled online.

But until we can resist those urges, stop from clicking those articles, and trolling the databases hackers' victims, we are just encouraging other hackers with an ax to grind, digital eavesdroppers, and snoopers to uncover our private moments and publishing them for the world to see. And, unfortunately, it doesn't seem like we've hit that point of maturity in our collective Internet evolution.

Recommended: Why you have the right to obscurity

Much of the online discussion after hackers exposed users of the adultery-encouraging Ashley Madison site focused on whether cheaters will receive their comeuppance – not just in the case of hypocritical public figures, but everyday people, too. But if you don't care that illegal activity brought the names to light, do you really have any standing to seek some kind of moral justice? 

As Danielle Citron and Maram Salaheldin rightly remind us: "Today, it’s a database of alleged adulterers. Tomorrow, it could be the personal information of donors to an abortion rights or pro-life charity, or hospital records, or even Google search histories."

What philosopher Kate Manne calls “moral narcissism” seems to be in play. Ms. Manne says it manifested here when “people tacitly tried to maintain or cultivate a sense of their own moral superiority by pouring scorn on those who got outed,” even as a massive “pile-on” already occurred. I agree. Some people wanted to read the Ashley Madison stories and voice strong reactions to them just to feel better about themselves.

In the case of the airplane breakup, the media is largely responsible for creating the story. Yes, the play-by-play was already broadcast on social media. But aggregating mean spirited tweets into well-trafficked platforms is enough to woo a sizable pool of readers who crave schadenfreude – joy at other people’s suffering.

It might seem that there’s a big difference between the two cases. While a hack obviously invades privacy by stealing customers' personal information, the media covered a breakup that dissolved in public. But it’s a victim-blaming attitude to say that all privacy interests evaporate the second conversation is pursued that could have happened behind closed doors. Such a callous outlook ignores the importance many of us place on what Woodrow Hartzog and I refer to as obscurity – the ease or difficulty of acquiring information and making sense of it. 

If you’re not a prominent figure, it’s reasonable to expect that conversations you have in public will only be accessible to a limited audience – such as the folks who are within earshot. Obscurity accounts for why we don’t mind showing our faces in public, but can have reservations about companies using facial recognition technology. It’s why travelers will think about the impressions they’re cultivating for folks close by, but don’t expect those impressions to be widely shared.  

Another way to appreciate the privacy point is to think about schadenfreude as the secret sauce of so much reality TV. Adults appearing on reality TV shows consent to participating in a genre that’s widely known for thriving on jealousy, insecurity, betrayal, and embarrassment. Presumably the couple on the airplane wasn’t hamming it up for an audience and weren’t asking for a broadcast spotlight to shine on their affairs. 

Sadly, it’s not surprising that these are popular stories. We’ve seen ugly sensibilities on display before in cases where privacy is invaded. A big reason why hacked photos of naked celebrities and e-mails containing negative insider information about them go viral is that some people enjoy the rush of power that comes from mortifying people who are accustomed to being influential and envied. Once the floodgates are open and pent-up resentment gets released, concern for others and society as a whole all too easily can wash away.  

What can be done to make things better? Appealing to media ethics won’t work. So long as media outlets believe stories that make us feel better at other people’s expense will draw in readers and viewers, they'll run them. They’re just giving the public what it wants, after all, and shouldn’t be shouldered with the paternalist burden of saving us from ourselves. 

The onus is on us. We need to accept responsibility for having made privacy-eviscerating stories popular. And we need to come to terms with our role in enticing hackers and voyeurs to do illegal and immoral things. So, let’s flip the script. We’re powerful enough to make stories about protecting privacy the ones media can’t wait to run.

Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. Follow him on Twitter @EvanSelinger. 

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