Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Is Privacy an Outdated Concept?

I attended a talk tonight at UofT's iSchool Institute by Canadian science fiction author Robert Sawyer. He spoke on his belief of the outdated notion of privacy. In writing this blog post a paradox of privacy of mine occurred to me - I was hesitant to use his name as whenever I name a person or company on this blog, I inevitably receive an email or comment from them (okay this hasn't always proven the case as with my mentions of Beyonce or Shakira). Even though I publish this article in a public space, it still feels like an invasion when I hear from the people I'm talking about. I often find myself censoring myself so that I can maintain my sense of broadcasting my private thoughts.

I realize this behaviour is at odds with itself - but as raised in tonight's talk we (particularly my generation) are in a transitional phase from a having sense of privacy to the realization that privacy is dead. Sawyer argued that we only ever protected our privacy for two reasons: shame and wrong-doing. When societal values were more restrictive we guarded our personal lives to fit in and prevent societal repercussions. As more things become tolerable in our society this is no longer necessary. The latter point is where Sawyer mostly focused. He noted that with destructive weaponry becoming more powerful and harder to detect, it will become increasingly possible for those full of hate or for mad scientists to annihilate humanity. So notions of privacy must be put aside for our protection and preservation. He asked, can we now truly afford privacy?

Sawyer noted, however, that this is largely a moot point anyway as corporations already have access to extensive information about us. And moreover we have willing given companies our privacy (whether or not we were beguiled to do so).

An audience member objected that people do not in fact wittingly give up their privacy. I wanted to chime in that this was not necessarily true as I have given up a lot of private info about myself to the mobile app Foursquare fully knowing what I was giving up. Hell, I was even hopeful that giving up this info would result in more corporate invasion of my "private space" to offer me even paltry deals. Air Miles knows tons about me, and I LOVE all the free trips I've gotten from them.

Some of the audience were rankled by Sawyer's provocative assertion that privacy is dead (or rather reassertion as he and other technologists have noted this for years). Sawyer noted that already the boat has sailed on this (or as he said the "aircraft carrier") and it is impossible now to stop people from releasing info to companies. Instead he argued that we need to learn how to live with this new reality and to enact policy against the misuse of personal info.

I agree with Sawyer that people are too busy and too impressed with using tech like Facebook or Google to start en masse to recapture and to assert their privacy. Some believe that caring about protecting privacy is a generational one - as witness to the tons of Facebook users who don't ever change their default settings and then publish the most intimate details of their lives. I don't feel that this is generational. I may not post drunken photos of myself but in general I don't really care about privacy discussions or policy.

The only reason I went to see Sawyer speak on this topic tonight is that I loved the TV series based on his book FlashForward and that my wife recommended him as a speaker after hearing him speak on the human rights of clones and robots.

Still the privacy session was interesting and Sawyer read amply from his works. Including a new trilogy (begins with Wake) on what happens when the world wide web gains intelligence. Now that is a topic I care about.

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