The Death of Privacy

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Sit at a bar and talk to a stranger. Maybe get their first name, the town they live in and one other tidbit. Then, armed with only your cell phone, see how long it takes before you know everything you could ever want to know about them. It’s not that hard, and the depth of detail in what you can learn is scary. In five minutes I had a total stranger’s phone number, email, where they live, how much they pay in property taxes and where their kids goes to college. Photos too! Criminals and the nefarious must pray to the tech gods every day for such a gift.

Privacy. Everyone keeps talking about. Big corporations like Facebook pay lip-service to it but continue to know us better and better, and to share that information with anyone willing to pay for it. Governments impose regulations but nothing changes. An entire industry has sprung up to make it easier to learn everything about you. Any yet you have to wonder – can anything really be done to protect our own personal lives in such a public, connected and sharing world? Moreover, does it even matter?

Essentially, we have traded privacy for convenience. Every online purchase, survey, form, quiz and newsletter is received at the cost of giving up some piece of information. So, do you really want to disconnect from this deus ex machina monster we have created? If so, you better pull the plug on the internet and throw away your cell phone. No more web browsing! And as the internet of things - which is to say every device in the world with an on/off switch - pervades all the nooks and crannies of our wired lives the notion of privacy is going to become so hopelessly futile as to be rendered moot.

Feeding the beast is none other than ourselves. Consumer surveys repeatedly tell us we are not willing to forsake “user experience” for privacy. Not only do we want instant gratification, overnight delivery, immediate results and targeted advertising, we expect it. It’s no wonder Amazon owns the online shopping experience; the brilliance of Jeff Bezos is that he understood our natural predisposition to easy transactions long before anyone else and he pursued it with relentless vengeance.

A common refrain against the few Luddites remaining is that if you have “done nothing wrong” then privacy doesn’t matter. Deeper thinkers might point out that privacy is considerably more than not hiding things, it is about the human need for space and refuge away from the eyes of the community, the ability to play and try out new ideas, identities and behaviors without lasting consequence and the importance of maintaining the balance of power between the individual, the all-seeing/all-knowing corporations and governmental bodies.

A worthy notion, but is privacy a right? Are we entitled to anonymity? If so, we have two problems – A right to privacy is at odds with the tolerance of the community to forsake it in return for the benefits attained, and secondly, the last privacy train left the station long ago. Law, government, rules and efforts to control social change consistently play catchup to technology, innovation and science. If it can be done it will be done, sooner rather than later, and always before there is someone or some thing trying to regulate it.

We live in an open world, one where technology and convenience are now baked into our daily lives and we are not willing to give it up. So we pose our ironic indignation to an impossibility. The notion of privacy is irreconcilable with how we now live, function and communicate. Even if we wanted to do something about it where would we start, how would we do it, and how effective a solution could we conjur?

Forget about it. The reality is this: privacy is dead. And we killed it without even knowing it. So get over it and go meet a stranger. But hurry, there’s only a few left...

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