There’s some horrific statistic out there about how many CCTV cameras there are covering city streets in the UK . When George Orwell wrote his immortal words, “Big Brother is watching,” this was exactly what he was referring to – no, not the TV series. And yet, the overwhelming majority of people in the UK are just fine with their actions being watched – and recorded – all the time. Their attitude is, it’s only people who are doing something wrong that would have a problem with it. (We’ll talk about state secrecy another day.)
Then, just recently, there was an almost unbelievable case of the school-supplied laptops and the Philadelphia school district who spied on their students. Using unknown remote control, 2300 laptop cameras were switched on and photos taken of children in their bedrooms. Fortunately, this story caused an uproar about breaches of privacy by the school and charges have been laid. (Nothing has been said so far about the teachers getting their heads examined!)
But interestingly, when this story was presented to a group of adult-age students at a Florida university, they were as equally content as the citizens of the UK with the idea of privacy being breached in such a manner.
Just this week, both Google and Facebook have come under fire for their actions surrounding the private information of their users and the public in general. Google says theirs was a legitimate mistake, Facebook says that people don’t really want secrecy.
The Australian Communications Minister, Steven Conroy – whose infamous internet filter has been likened to the Dark Ages – describes Google’s actions as the ‘single greatest privacy breach in the history of privacy’. There’s no doubt in the minds of many Australians that the venom of his spray is in part driven by criticism of the filter by Google and many, nay, all internet companies in Australia – but it does tease out an interesting question. What is the history of privacy?
Until the development of cities, humans lived in small communities, very often sharing sleeping quarters with all sorts of people. There are many cultures around the world today who continue to live like this. For these people, living together and sharing resources in such a manner, the expectation of privacy would be very different to our own. But are we really so different?
The internet age suggests not. With the raging popularity of ‘reality TV’, blogging, Twitter and social networking, the founders of Facebook might well have a case for saying that 400 million people can’t be wrong in wanting to put themselves out there. (Well, they could be wrong, but that’s a discussion for another day!) When Google first launched its Street View site, privacy organisations were up in arms – but generally speaking, most people just rushed in to see what their house looked like and check up on their friends.
There is much to suggest that the electronic age and the internet has actually made its users into more of a community than ever before, with global campaigns successfully influencing anything from the rise of pop stars to the naming of space ships.
But it’s hard not to think that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t have a point. The desire of huge numbers of young people to be famous, prompts them to post all sorts of private information – and alas, pictures – of themselves into the electronic world from which it’s impossible to return. Does this demonstrate a contempt for secrecy? A complete lack of understanding of the longevity of their actions? Or does it perhaps suggest a deeper desire not just to be recognised, but to register in a community to which they long to belong?
The people of the UK equate a desire for privacy with secrecy. Anybody reading Orwell’s 1984 will look upon this belief as having been carefully crafted by politicians who want to be able to spy on their citizens without recourse. There’s no doubt that the events of 9/11 have prompted this – but what are we really giving up?
Even if I have absolutely nothing to hide, I know for sure I don’t want my entire life observed and recorded by persons known or unknown. It doesn’t mean I ‘m evil or a criminal, it just means these things are mine and I reserve the right to reveal them if and when – and to whom – I wish. My question is, short of extracting myself entirely from the electronic world – assuming that would be possible – how do I protect myself against the Zuckerbergs and Conroys of this world? How do I get back my privacy without being accused of having something bad to hide? How do I stop Google peering over my fence?
Do you think privacy is a serious issue for you? Have you had a bad experience? How would you feel if your entire life became an open electronic book?