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Privacy or Transparency? The Battle for the Soul of the 21st Century

2013-10-16 7 min read Essays marco

When you drive at night through the countryside in the Netherlands, you notice something odd: people are sitting at the dinner table, watching TV, or getting ready to go to bed in their homes, and you can clearly see them from the street. There are no curtains, no shades, no privacy. Coming from a society that values the ability not to be bothered, the idea that everyone gets to see everything you do seems threatening.

Apparently, this transparency has its roots in Protestantism. You shouldn’t do anything you wouldn’t want others to see, and in the Netherlands you just don’t do anything you wouldn’t want others to see. Curtainless windows are just one example: I recall how weird it felt when I visited a swimming pool in Vaals, only to find out that the showers were shared: naked men, women, and children all in one room.

What this has done to the Dutch cannot be underestimated: they have become an incredibly tolerant and open-minded nation, one that is proud of its ability to live with just about anything that could be human nature. They are happy, they are free-spirited, and they are incredibly tall (not that this has anything to do with privacy).

On the other side of the Channel, the exact opposite. Since Victorian times (and possibly before), England has tried to shy away from controversy by allowing and forcing people to hide themselves. You are supposed to front a suitable facade and to do the things that belong to human nature in hiding. The defining keyword of this society is proper.

Since behaving properly doesn’t change human nature, which is sometimes (or frequently) an awful beast, English society of the day was ripe with scandal. Scandal is the disclosure that you do things that are improper when out of sight, which should be no surprise to anyone. Instead, in English society it was assumed that you only did things that are proper, and all deviation was shocking.

The main difference between the two approaches is symbolized by the one word, hypocrisy. In the Netherlands, everybody has to show their “stuff.” Since everyone has warts, pointing fingers won’t get you far. In England, you behave blameless, and the appearance of scandal gives you a chance to ignore your own shortcomings. As a matter of fact, some strange twist in human nature (I think it is called irony, or humour) makes us revel in other people’s failing all the more when we know our own failings are so much worse.

Enter the Internet, the machine that forces transparency like no other. It never forgets, it is all too liberal with information, and it is designed for the express purpose of not being ever turned off by anything. You can rest assured, even after humans destroy each other over some spiteful argument, there will still be cockroaches and the Internet.

We have had the teacher fired over underage drinking revealed by Facebook photos. We have had the Republican staffer revealed to be a former porn model. We have had the German minister of education whose doctoral thesis was revealed to be plagiarized. The Internet has made all sorts of discovery possible, to the point where privacy experts suggest you create a second online persona that do all the nasty things you don’t want your “proper self” to do.

This last suggestion, that you create a second persona with a full back story of lurid behavior that lives on a single laptop in your home connected to the Internet via TOR, is possibly the most revealing one. You recall the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? It is no coincidence that it stems from smack in the middle of the Victorian era. Dr. Jekyll is the “proper self,” while Mr. Hyde is the “lurid persona.”

Imagine everyone has a “Mr. Hyde laptop.” Maybe you use yours for online gambling, or for exotic porn, or for violent fantasies. All of these Mr. Hyde laptops have one thing in common: if they are unearthed, your Dr. Jekyll falls to pieces under the revelations of your hidden self. You can use all your technical skills to separate yourself from the Mr. Hyde laptop, but ultimately you know that your future depends on being able to forever pretend you and that laptop never met.

The last ones to find that out were the friendly people at the NSA. They thought it possible, through a conspiracy with the legislative and the judiciary, to hide a gargantuan data collection scheme for the purpose of eternal monitoring of everybody. A vague justification (“something bad might happen in the future, and we want to be able to connect the dots”) and lots of money thrown at cyber-security (always good for government contracts), plus the fading idea of the proper self (“if you are against it, you have something to hide!”) were all it took.

It is somewhat, slightly ironic that the agency that wanted to know everything about everyone didn’t realize people would eventually find out. If there is one giant failing in the NSA revelation it is that the agency thought it could immunize itself from the disease it brought upon the rest of the world. Once you bring the plague to your town, a mask with herbs and flower petals won’t do much good.

Europeans, to whom I rarely look for advice on matters of the future, have gone the path of legislative restriction. Privacy is a big deal there, and who has access to your data and how is strictly regulated. To a certain extent, this is very helpful. For instance, government agencies are restricted in data sharing, and insurance companies in the way they can request your medical records. The regulation of data flows seems to be very helpful, as long as it pertains to uncompromising data.

In the field of scandalous data, though, these privacy laws have no real effect. That’s because the most likely leaker is the us of the past, and we gain nothing by suing our old selves. The problem is not in the fact that embarrassing and compromising information is leaked, but in the type of information we consider embarrassing or compromising.

The Internet is currently teaching us a lot about human nature.** Our reaction, so far, has been to tighten up** what we perceive as shortcomings of the law. For instance, when the case of the Internet Cannibal Armin Meiwes came to the courts, the reaction to the lenient sentence was to tighten the law. When the case of the Washington (state) man who died after sex with a horse came to light, Washington passed a law prohibiting bestiality.

Of course, those are extreme examples. More common is the case of someone not being hired because a Google search for her name reveals unsavory information; someone not being promoted because his Facebook reveals he’s gay; someone being denied a lease on an apartment because there are pictures online of him with his five dogs.

Notice that for discrimination to work, there must be a social advantage to discriminating. Say you think Martians are unfit for work and you discriminate against them: that both causes Martians to get lower wages, but also to make you pay more for the help you need. it also makes it more likely for people that don’t discriminate against Martians to get one at a lower wage. The end result of the discrimination favors only people that don’t discriminate, while it hurts both you (the bigot) and the Martian.

When people start thinking that discriminating against Martians benefits them socially, for instance because other Martian-haters will patronize their store more frequently, then discrimination turns into a disadvantage for the Martian only. The impact on the bigot is lessened, because there is less competition for the Martian he doesn’t want; you gain in social standing what you lose in economic opportunity.

Over the next many years, the Internet will see the battle between the forces of transparency and those of bigotry. We will see expanded availability of information about people and the things they do; will we be able to learn how to live with that information without judging?

In other words, will we allow a ten year old picture of a high-school student drinking beer to taint our picture of today’s high-school teacher? Your answer to that question (or to a similar one, depending on your type of bigotry) indicates on what side of the battle you are.