Social Justice and Privacy: An End to Solitude

Within the privacy community it is commonly said that privacy is tightly coupled to societal notions of respect. We advocate for our local, national, and international institutions to protect personal information, to collect only the minimum needed, and to do so not merely to prevent financial loss or compliance with regulations, but because it demonstrates respect for individuals.

But what is the basis for this respect? We show respect for one another's feelings, we respect an individual's rights, and when we confront people in moments of great suffering or joy, we show respect for their privacy — we allow individuals the right to decide whether or not to share with us.

This is the point I want to focus on: By respecting individual privacy, we protect each person's right to choose whom they wish to speak with, to assemble with, and to worship with. Basic human rights codified in the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. By looking at privacy through this lens, we change the color of the conversation, raising the bar quite a bit higher than compliance with the red flag rule or protection from identity theft.

Why is this important? I believe it is because our thoughts—in effect, our inner lives—are the quantum particles of our social physics; that is, to observe them is to change them. I believe a failure to recognize the connection between our inner lives and privacy exposes us all to an expansion of social injustices.

Sadly, the rather muted response to recent NSA data-harvesting programs shows how far we've already gone toward accepting intrusive practices. Indeed, most people don't realize that using online services leaves digital remnants that, like ripples in a pond, point unmistakably back to the point of impact. And while we do recognize that many of the technologies we use are collaborative in nature, that doesn't lessen the squirm factor at the thought of others having access to hitherto private messages.

"To read someone's e-mail is to see her thinking and talking in real time."

On the broader social level we should be asking, where are the boundaries between public safety and privacy? When harvesting consumer activity on a website for research, what constitutes "informed consent"? Is there no legal limit on what a company can do with data it collects in exchange for a service? These questions resist quantification—yet their answers will shape the society we and our descendants live in. Fortunately, these are also questions that we in higher education are favorably, if not uniquely, positioned to wrestle with.

As a thought exercise we can start by reflecting on how watershed historical moments might have unfolded if today's technology were in place. Imagine how different the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings might be using merely the tools every campus in the country has access to (actual quotes are in italics).

Chairman WALTER: I said, Did you sing it on that occasion?

Mr. SEEGER: I have sung that song. I am not going to go into where I have sung it. I have sung it many places.

Chairman WALTER: Actually that's fine Mr. Seeger, we have a video surveillance tape from the lodge showing you singing it. Someone in the audience also streamed it from her phone. We have her coming in next. Whom did you invite to attend the performance?

Mr. SEEGER: I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs.

Chairman WALTER: Mr. Seeger, we already know these from your phone, Kindle, and e-mail records, we simply are giving you a chance to confess to what we already know.

Mr. SEEGER: I feel these questions are improper, sir, and I feel they are immoral to ask any American this kind of question.

"I feel these questions are improper"—brave words for a man armed with only a banjo1, yet these are precisely the kind of questions modern technology can trivially and immediately answer. We live within a justice system that, though built on principles, is fleshed out by the close examination of specific instances as determined by the courts. We should reflect on how social justice will change in our contemporary, technology-imbued civilization.

The proper questions for our community aren't difficult to form, nor do they require bravery: How can we ensure that big data analytics don't exacerbate social injustice? How can law enforcement benefit from the power of contemporary technology while still allowing us our dignity? These sorts of questions may not have black-and-white answers, but they will require drawing boundaries—and who better than the academic community to engage in them with all the nuance and honesty they require?

But—will we be up to the challenge? If we passively allow commercial and governmental practices to erode the sanctity of our inner worlds, we put at risk the very capacity for moral, ethical, and humanistic guidance we so desperately need to answer these questions.

I fear that the aggressive and even well-intended use of modern data harvesting and big-data analytics to dragnet the digital ecosystem will poison our social inner life. How are we to speak when we don't know who is listening? When every web search or contact list is a potential informer, will private discourse become infused with paranoia and immobility [PDF]? It appears that this is not merely my personal angst, but that we've already largely lost the sanctity of the body as a private space (from TSA scans to "stop and frisk" to this horror). If our own bodies are subject to this level of intrusion, can our inner world (which is so much cheaper and easier to violate) be far behind?

This is not a screed against technology. As a technologist I want the Thoreaus of tomorrow to be able to escape to the new Waldens and to capture their thoughts using tomorrow's Wordpress and LiveJournal. And yes, I want to use modern tools to help find and stop those who wish to inflict suffering on the world — but not at the cost of our privacy.


  1. To be fair, beyond his banjo Pete Seeger was also armed with a powerful soul and the Constitution.


© 2014 Michael Corn

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