The Invasion of Privacy
The period spanning the last five decades has rightly been called the information technology era, characterised by – amongst other things – a technological and communication revolution.
Consequently, information has become an increasingly powerful tool.
We live in an era greatly characterised by the proliferation of technological advances that are slowly intruding on all spheres of life, both private and public life – whether to the knowledge of the individual or not.
The lines that separate the public from the private and vice versa have become blurred.
In a time of heightened Internet usage, where means of communication have drastically increased in number and levels of sophistication, we find that access to information – both private and public – has become more facilitated than ever before.
In this contemporary setting it is evident that people seem to be willing and are at times fascinated with allowing the public to encroach on matters that were once considered direly private.
Individuals actually play an active role in exposing themselves and making themselves accessible to others, as is the case with social networking where people create virtual identities so as to stay connected with the world.
What this means is that a contemporary definition of privacy is hard to conceptualise and similarly violation of that privacy is difficult to identify.
Different players are all scrounging to possess information, ranging from governments, to market corporations, to hospitals to communication agencies.
As said by PM Regan (1995), “New technology gives the organisations using it a new source of power over individuals.
“The power derives from the organisations’ access to information about the individuals’ histories and activities, the content and pattern of their communications, and their thoughts and proclivities.
“Technology (and information) enhances the ability of organisations to monitor individuals.”
Information is so powerful and pivotal in our society that even the allure of possessing it is deemed noteworthy, how else would you explain tabloids or magazines that go about publishing powerful and at times hurtful material without solid facts or evidence to substantiate them, and yet still reap desired outcomes.
Privacy is quickly becoming a privilege rather than a right.
But what exactly is privacy and why is it of importance?
Far back in 1890, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis in an article for the Harvard Law Review, said: “The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilisation, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual.”
In his seminal work “Privacy and Freedom”, Alan Westin defines privacy as “the claim of individuals, groups or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others.”
Privacy thus has to do with an individual and social participation, where one can choose to voluntarily and temporarily withdraw from the general society, whether physically or psychologically.
Westin sums up the importance of privacy by stating that it provides people with much needed personal autonomy, emotional release, self-evaluation as well as limited or protected communication.
Privacy is then basically one of our instruments for achieving individual goals of self-realisation.
But it is Westin’s analysis of privacy in relation to society that mostly interests this writer.
Westin argued that the individuals’ relationship with society is a conflicted one due to a lack of balance between privacy and social participation.
He explains: “The individual’s desire for privacy is never absolute, since participation in society is an equally powerful desire.
“Thus each individual continually engages in a personal adjustment process in which he balances the desire for privacy with the desire for disclosure and communication with others.
“In other words, privacy and social participation are competing desires, and each individual establishes a balance between the two that best suits them.”
Yet, because of societal norms, Westin argues that that balance becomes flawed due to what he calls “privacy invading phenomena”.
He argues that each society has socially-approved machinery that goes about invading aspects of individual privacy in the name of protecting group rights.
Let’s take the heightened levels of security in the United States after the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001.
In the name of “national security” and the “war on terror”, many acts that directly infringed on the public’s privacy were committed.
Acts such as x-ray examination at airports, spontaneous detainment and questioning/incarceration without trial, and setting up of surveillance cameras in public places have become common.
In other words, personal privacy cannot have primacy over national security and state interests.
Technology and Privacy
“Too often in the past democratic, nations have surrendered freedoms in the name of security, with enormous cost and too often little benefit.
“The values of privacy deserve at least some restraint on restrictive measures, even if limited incursions could enhance security over the short term,” wrote Peter Galison and Martha Minow in 2007.
The two writers, in “Human Rights in the War on Terror”, foresee a society in decline if privacy is overruled by technology working in cahoots with legislation and law enforcement for political purposes.
They argue that “if people repeatedly experience telemarketers passing on their (personal information) to others; if people are subjected to daily searches of their bodies and belongings as they enter buildings, board airplanes or trains… if people watch courts refuse challenges to governmental and corporate collection and sharing of personal information, the actual scope of privacy protection declines. Before we know it the very sense of self people have, the sense of dignity and composure become affected”.
It has been the view of mankind that science and technology will make the world easier to understand and therefore predictable.
It was thought that the more we are able to rationally understand the world, then the more we can shape history for our own purposes thus making the world more stable and ordered.
But this has not always been the case.
The proliferation of technology has taken on a life of its own, especially in capitalist systems that praise fluidity, change and constant innovation.
As argued by Anthony Giddens in his immensely significant 2002 work titled “Runaway World”: “The world in which we find ourselves today, rather than being more and more under our control, seems out of our control – a runaway world … some of the influences that were supposed to make life more certain and predictable for us, including the progress of science and technology, often have quite the opposite effect.”
We have created a beast that we can hardly control. And so as technology improves lives, it also erodes our humanity.
Reagan (1995) argues that “despite the fact that it was possible to invade privacy before a particular technology was used, debate about technology and privacy inevitably revisited the question about the importance of the technology”.
Questions regarding the role of technology on social change will surely be vast and long: did the technology cause privacy invasion? Or did technology exacerbate already existing threats to privacy?
A good way of tackling the privacy technology dichotomy would be by analysing schools of thought on the role of technology and social change, them being: the technology determinists, the technology neutralists and the technology realists.
The determinists argue that technology has become an end in itself, an autonomous force subject to no external controls. They go about positioning technology at the crux of society, with technology being the fundamental condition affecting all aspects of life; they therefore view changes in technology as an important source of change in the society itself.
Leslie White states in “The Science of Culture: a Study of Man and Civilisation”, that “social systems are in a very real sense secondary and subsidiary to technological systems … the technology is the independent variable, the social system the dependent variable”.
John K Galbraith shares similar views in “The New Industrial State”. He says, “We are becoming the servants in thought as in action, of the machines we have created to serve us.”
Probably the most prominent of determinists, Jacques Ellul, asserts in his renowned book “The Technological Society” that “technique has become autonomous; it has fashioned an omnivorous world which obeys its own laws and renounced all traditions”.
Is it any coincidence that we have had movies like “I, Robot” (2004) and Eagle Eye (2008), in which machines gain “conscience” and fight for mastery over the world? A case of the creature becoming greater than the creator?
Away from Hollywood, determinists argue that society has become technical in essence and has transcended the individual by making him a mere cog in an operation dictated by technical systems.
Aldous Huxley in “Brave New World” and George Orwell in “1984” both foresaw a world so strictly governed by technological advancements (which also enforce invasion of privacy) that there is no room for individual expression of thought or sentiment.
Regarding privacy, determinists argue that computers, telecommunications, polygraphs, and electronic eavesdropping equipment are the causes of privacy invasions.
They argue that the very existence of such devices signals a subsequent set of events beyond human control and, therefore, anticipate that levels of privacy will diminish until its eventual disappearance.
Due to a lack of individual influence in such a system, little can be done to reverse the course of actions launched by the technologies.
The technology neutralists, on the other hand, argue that technology has no independent force of its own. It is a tool to be steered by people in order to achieve their desired ends.
In short, technology remains under human control.
Edward Glaser states that “technology is inherently neutral and plastic. It makes a fine servant and will do exactly what man commands”.
Neutralists regard privacy invasions as the result of human decisions and not of technology.
“The technologies are merely tools that are used by people to achieve certain ends. If the ends are unpopular, the technologies can be changed by human decisions” (Regan).
Following this approach, one can then see how public policy could play a significant role in setting the course of technological advancement vis-à-vis privacy infringement issues.
Then we have the technological realists.
These believe that technological changes must be examined from broader historical and cultural perspectives.
“As technological innovations increase and come to dominate most areas of modern life – business, education, medicine, and government – the social responsibilities according to the technological realists perspective becomes somewhat overwhelming” (Regan).
What therefore needs to happen is a form of compromise from both culture and technology, as expressed by Neil Postman.
He said: “Culture and technology need to negotiate.”
Technology realists view privacy quite differently from other theorists in that they regard neither the technology nor the society as the sole determining factors.
“Realists maintain that a dynamic relationship exists between the two. Computer technology opens up new possibilities for information processing; those in charge of information processing choose certain uses of that technology that fit within the financial and ethical constraints set by their organisations, with the technology determining a range of choices,” says Regan.
Where are we?
The negotiation between technology and culture is not what is occurring contemporarily.
Technology is allowed to spiral freely with men losing grip of the ramifications it can have on them and society. Much is being allowed to occur underneath the umbrella of technological growth and human advancement, which though largely beneficial, is ruining cultural and moral values.
Let’s take the recent reports of how the American National Security Agency has supposedly tapped into online social systems and obtained private information.
As reported by Antone Gonsalves: “The NSA has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and at least six other US Internet companies, collecting search history, the content of emails, file transfers, live chats and more. The data gathered is to try to spot terrorist activity in communications between people in and outside the US.”
Though technology is needed, people play a crucial element in determining the sphere and extent of its influence; it should therefore be used as a tool for progression that subscribes to a higher moral code.
Privacy is of the utmost importance for various reasons as discussed here, but in a society that at the same time prizes privacy invasion (Big Brother, Facebook, Twitter etc), it becomes clear that things aren’t necessarily black and white.
Lastly, the idea that sacrificing personal privacy for the greater good or to achieve security should be seen as fallacious at best and ignorant of other pressing issues at worst.