A Quick Thought on Privacy
I heard a piece on NPR this morning that underscored a notion that I have heard and read on numerous occasions lately, which is that despite the fact that there is a lot of concern at the moment over privacy we Americans actually have willingly given up a lot of privacy, especially in the contemporary sea of technology in which we swim.
For example it is often stated that we share a lot of private information on social media sites like Facebook (I certainly shared a lot about a recent family vacation, for example) or that we provide lots of data to private companies (and that, indeed, they often collect information in a less than transparent way).
All of this is, of course, quite true.
However, if a company I do business with gathers information about me (that I have given mostly of my own volition as the price of doing business) the worst they can usually do to me is attempt to market products in my direction (with onscreen ads, spam and phone calls usually being the most intrusive manifestation thereof).
If the federal government of the United States is collecting information about me (that I have mostly not given of my own volition) the worst they can do is confiscate my property and incarcerate me (if not worse).
This is an obvious distinction that is not made often enough, I would argue, in these stories on privacy. Yes, a lot of are willing to share more than perhaps we should in public settings. But the fact that we choose to do so is key, and more importantly, the stakes for Facebook sharing and NSA snooping are not, at least in theory, anywhere near the same.
In other words: to say that we have become more public is our daily doings is not the same as saying it is okay for the government to secretly gather reams of data about us and store it for future use. Both are roughly about the concept of “privacy” but they are quite distinct in terms of kinds and consequences. I think this needs more stressing as telling the public, even in stories that are critical of the NSA programs, that sharing on Facebook is somehow in the same category as Verizon handing over reams of phone records to the government is creating false equivalencies. Verizon, after all, does not have prosecutorial powers. The feds do.