6.07.2013

On the freedom of information

Privacy is not a digital value. That doesn't mean that privacy is dead, or that privacy doesn't matter. It means that privacy is not the kind of value that naturally emerges from the system of concepts, technologies, and social norms that characterize the digital age. And that means privacy is going to be a hard value to maintain, so if privacy is something we value we’re going to have to do a lot of extra work because the framework we’re in doesn't have much respect for it.

I’m a digital advocate. I think the digital values are important and worth endorsing, and before we get all worked up about privacy it is important to remember the unique benefits of the values that the digital age does support. Sharing is the kind of value that emerges naturally from a digital framework; the concepts, tools, and social expectations of our age are all oriented to support it. In some sense it is the primary value from which all other digital values flow, the way that Aristotle’s virtues all followed the form of the Good. Sharing also allows for the reproduction-with-variation routine so popular in other natural arenas, which explains both the dynamism of our age and the readiness with which we adopt its rhythms.

Sharing is also pretty obviously in tension with the value of privacy. While privacy is not a digital value, it is a value of humanism: that set of concepts, tools, and norms that characterized the age of enlightenment and its incredibly productive political and intellectual fruit. The core humanistic value is freedom, and privacy was valued in humanistic frameworks to the extent that it ensured the possibility of freedom.  Privacy isn't a core value of humanism the way sharing is a core digital value, so I don’t believe that digital values are fundamentally in tension with humanist values.

To the extent that privacy is still necessary for freedom (and to the extent that we continue to endorse humanist values), we should still continue to endorse privacy. But as digital persons we are actively making our deep interdependence explicit online, and as such the value of freedom takes on an entirely new character-- one in which privacy is only valued situationally and where sharing is the default. That doesn't mean we must reject privacy entirely, and it also doesn't mean we should defend privacy and reject the digital values. Again, all it means is that respecting privacy is going to take extra work because it isn't the default. If it’s any consolation, back when privacy was easier, sharing was a lot harder.

I say all this to preface the next series of claims, which I believe follow from the views sketched above, but I also think are a minority position in the discussions concerning privacy that are blooming all over the internet as I write. The two majority positions I see are, first, outrage at the violation and intrusion into our private lives; at the wanton disregard for law and justice; at the absolute corruption of power. And second, I see cynicism following the apparent death of a once-sacred value. “Privacy is dead,” they shout like Nietzschean harbingers relishing in the nihilism of a transitional age. “Get over it!”

Although I have far more sympathy with the first position, my own reaction is not really captured by either. Instead, my reaction was pragmatic: of course they are acquiring this data, it’s the only way they could have any idea what’s going on. Asking the government to secure the state’s domestic interests without access to major telecommunications channels would be like asking the LHC to find the Higgs boson with a shovel. If they weren’t inspecting this data they would be worse than blind; they would be utterly confused. That’s not to say that the ends justify the means; I’m only saying “that’s how it’s done.” If you want to find and predict potential security risks, you need to know the patterns of activity in lots and lots of individuals in order to build models where the potentially dangerous deviations become salient. Asking the NSA to do without this data is essentially asking them not to do their job.

The procedural way of dealing with a situation like this would be for the government to educate the public on the changing times and its new security demands, with the hopes of passing democratic legislation whereby these procedures were folded into standard operating practices, with proper oversight and all that. But of course that would never work for a billion reasons (most important of which is our system does not work), and so the most effective method of doing their jobs is simply to muscle the information illegally and try to deal with the political blowback when it happens. From their perspective, one must hope that the public outrage is drowned out by the cynical nihilists.

But from my perspective, this doesn't look much like a failure of privacy at all. Instead, it looks like the results of a broken institution dealing with a complex world by putting security and control above law and order. In other words, it looks like the exact same America I've known for the last 12 years or so.

One big reason this doesn't feel much like a privacy violation to me is that the government wasn't taking my data, they were taking data from Verizon or Facebook, and that's already information that I've willfully parted with and expect no further control over. Although it is sometimes pointed out that giving information to a corporation is "voluntary", it’s not as though the telecommunications industry is a bastion of freedom and individual rights apart from this government meddling. I don’t use these networks with the expectation that my use will be private or secure or in any other way under my explicit control; I operate with the maxim: If it’s online, it’s not mine. My cell phone and my social networking services are voluntary in the sense the very limited sense that I can opt out, but only at an ever greater cost to my social environment and personal well-being. My use of these networks is voluntary in only the same weak, legalistic sense in which wage slavery and other forms of corporate control are voluntary.

But even granting a voluntary contract, the data being acquired was not mine to give away. Verizon and Facebook controlled that data, not me. At best, the government is using these wiretap programs to overcome an information monopoly that should have never existed in the first place. If the two major positions in this debate are whether the government or the corporations should have control over my data, then I want out of the debate entirely.

My own view is that our networks should be operated through the collective planning of their users, who can decide for themselves how best to use that activity in the name of justice and security. I don’t think data should be monopolized in NSA supercomputers any more than I think it should remain the private fortune of a small collection of telecommunications companies. In both cases these massive volumes of data are wasted on narrow worldviews and already privileged positions. In both cases, whatever feedback this data might offer in our attempts to better organize for our future is lost.

That last bit deserves emphasis, so I’ll say it again. The only way we ever learn anything is through feedback on our performance. If we don’t know what we’re doing, we’ll never get better. Keeping this information divided up among a few Fortune 500 companies is really no different from keeping it in state hands for the selective implementation of justice: in both cases, the people remain perpetually blind and utterly confused, keeping us constitutionally incapable of organizing to right these injustices.