Thoughts on Privacy

This post is pretty heavy on the pontificating, but I’ll tie it back into GNOME at the end, I swear.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about privacy lately. Most of the shiny things here on the internet are some type of service where you abandon some degree of privacy to an intermediary in return for convenience or community: your blog, Facebook, Twitter, GMail,, and take much of the random bits of your life and put them into corporate-owned databases so you can connect with friends, buy random things without moving, or not have to edit the same silly preferences dialogs 50 times. OKCupid, Google Latitude and Mint do so with your peccadilloes, your physical location, and your financial records.

There’s a certain amount of trust involved in participating in all this: the trust that your information is ultimately anonymous or only sold to advertisers. Of course, Google logs what you’re looking for, and everything that’s made public, and it’s worth pointing out that there’s really nothing preventing an organization from collating all this information together, which is an end to most of what we call privacy and the sense of freedom that comes along with it. About the only exception is medical records, which are protected in the US by privacy laws. My understanding is that it’s a crime to give unauthorized people access to those records, but I’m a little shaky on what happens after that privacy has been breached—that is, once the bribed clerk has given out the records, are there laws to prevent the recipient from distributing them further?

Minutiae aside, there’s a larger, unasked question of the social cost for all this. Does the lack of privacy manifest as a monumental chilling effect? Does it turn out after all your activities are cataloged and recorded that you’re less free? Do you self-censor and live in fear of being discovered, or (I’d say) foolishly assume that your privacy is a traditional social norm that will continue to be respected? Grab a green flag and march against the fact the only real privacy you have is “the two inches inside your own head?”

Whatever the social cost of this new world will turn out to be, we’re living in it already, and people are going to have to figure out how to make it compatible with the concept of a free society. Which is why I redesigned my blog to integrate the Lifestream wordpress plugin and display all of my publically-accessible activities in one place: the music I’m listening to, the movies I’m watching, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. I’d actually like it if I could put my purchases on there like Facebook tried to do without asking anyone. There’s nothing in any of these databases that a government agency, corporation, or partner couldn’t get their hands on if they wanted really to.

I promised I’d tie this back into GNOME at some point: possibly the most interesting thing about a project like Zeitgeist is that it puts that record of what you’re doing in a place where you can access it—it doesn’t solve the underlying conflict, of course, but it does let you use it for your own purposes.



  1. Jerome Haltom says:

    I don’t think anything has changed in how I conduct myself… I’d never post information I didn’t want people to know on a bulletin board in the middle of work, and I’d not do the same on FB. Same thing.

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