Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Online Privacy and Values Readjustment

The disruptions that come with new technology often bring discomfort to those who would rather return to the way things were before (keeping of course the benefit that the new technology brings).

Consider automobiles in the early 20th century as an example. Most of us today drive or at least ride in automobiles but also realize that there are drawbacks. We enjoy the benefit of personal, flexible travel but would like to eliminate the traffic deaths and injuries, air pollution, generalized stress of automobile traffic and a host of social ills such as anonymity and isolation and the alterations to our landscape that the use of autos has brought. We like the mobility but not the public health and environmental drawbacks. These unintended consequences are disruptive and although objectionable to us, they are not enough for most of us to stop using cars.

While we've had a century or more to adjust to the automobile, a more immediate disruption is in information technology. Extensive media coverage of the Internet and its cultural trappings seems to encourage particularly strong opposition to the side effects of new gadgets and ways of collecting and using data. Automated information collecting and dissemination has made many things possible that we could only dream about just a few decades ago but like all innovation it has brought some irritations. Just as with automobiles, information technology is blamed for social isolation and de-personalization of daily life among other things.

But advances in information technology also mean that our understanding and long-held assumptions about personal privacy are going to have to change. A general feeling seems to be that we would like to control information about our personal lives just as we believe we have always done but it is becoming clear that this is not nearly as achievable as many would like to think.

The surreptitious loss of privacy is not limited to data collected by shopping websites and other online activity. The proliferation of cameras, and the systematic capture and storage of images means that our more and more of our activities are recorded, most often without us knowing about it.

Popular outrage is directed most recently at at the National Security Agency and recent credit card data breaches by retailers. But people are also resistant to the tracking of benign activities from which web sites we've viewed to what public places we've physically visited. And it appears that this information gathering will only become more refined and detailed as technology becomes more sophisticated and affordable.

What many fail to recognize is that at least in the near term, personal information is to the web what paid advertisement is to broadcast television--a key part of the business model. Trying to keep personal information off websites is like trying to watch television without ads which is a failure to recognize the basic economics of television broadcasting.

We may discover someday that the same is true of the Internet. Television producers have little incentive to create programs without advertiser/sponsors, if we kept our personal information away from the websites we visit, media and other companies with an online presence would have little incentive to create sites with free content. Nobody can give something away that costs money to produce--it's not sustainable. It is said that, "surveillance is advertising's new business model."

Still, there are those who believe we can protect our personal information from being reproduced and accessed in digital form. Unfortunately for them I think that battle has been lost. Instead of recovering and reclaiming the "rights" to privacy that we thought we had in the pre-Internet era, we will instead probably reconcile the loss by adjusting our expectations and values.

This mass readjustment of values has happened before in response to social change. Instead of turning back the clock and eliminating what many (but not all) thought objectionable, some of these problems in the past were "resolved" by mass acceptance of the objectionable behavior. Below are a few examples that might be instructive with regard to current dissatisfaction with online privacy.

At one time voters in the U.S. would never have elected a president who had admitted to past marijuana use. Some might still maintain that previous marijuana use is a reason to reject an individual who is running for president. But given the times and culture today, it is no longer a test for elect-ability; it seems that most of us don't care. We seem to accept this not yet as normal, but within a certain spectrum of the norm. That never would have happened in the 1960s.

Many of these attitude shifts are evolutionary in that they take effect only after a period of generations who bring new ideas.

Another example is premarital sex. Although it's been with us forever, in western Christian culture having sex before marriage had generally been scorned until the recent past. Prior to the middle of the 20th century, we taught our sons and daughters that bad things would come of having sex before marriage and we discouraged them from indulging before their wedding night. In fact, there are still some today who think that the way to prevent teen pregnancy is to stress abstinence and tell our teens to wait until they're more mature before intercourse (most have given up on a marriage between virgins) . But the fact is that preventing sex before marriage is entirely impractical. Most all of us have become used to the idea that our sons and daughters will do what they please. We didn't change the behavior, we changed our attitudes toward it.

You could go even further back in history. At one time we did not let our sons and daughters leave the house unchaperoned. If two teenagers wanted to spend time together, they had to be accompanied by an adult. Fierce adherence to that principle was doomed so it became routine to let youngsters go off by themselves.

Homosexuality is another sphere where many members of our society have accepted something that had been disapproved of for decades. There were (and still are) those who believe that homosexuality can somehow be "cured" or stamped out and removed from our society. Before the mid-20th century (and even now, in some places) people believed that gays and lesbians should keep their sexuality a secret. Letting others know, the conventional wisdom went, would mean that job and housing opportunities would be fewer and  the individual would be socially isolated. But instead of prohibition or censorship, what is happening is more like widespread acceptance. The conflict is being resolved but not by eliminating gay and lesbian people (as some might have liked) but by not being bothered by it.

With these and many other social issues the easiest resolution was for the old-fashioned to become comfortable with the behavior they object to rather than any attempt to eliminate the behavior. I have to believe that the same will happen with personal privacy in the digital age. The strong opposition to details of our personal behavior being circulated among strangers will one day disappear, not because our privacy will be reclaimed and protected by courts and legislation but because we will adjust to the idea that it is not reasonable (or even possible) to keep this information under our own control.

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