privacy is the problem, not the solution

Americans fear that their personal information is at risk when they go online. But maybe the trouble is that we're all too isolated offline.

By Jeffrey Obser

Published July 26, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

I wonder what Richard Nixon would have thought of the recently concluded Federal Trade Commission hearings on privacy in the datasphere. After all, Nixon suffered the most humiliating privacy loss ever. Surely he could empathize with all the people who are upset that strangers can find dossiers about them on the Web, or that their personal information has become an unregulated commodity floating through distant databases. He was as shocked and confused as we are that a convenient new communications technology -- in his case, audiotape -- would turn around and tattle on him. And, just like us, he reacted by demanding more privacy.

It mystifies us that the man thought he could have it both ways -- record everything, and get away with everything. But curiously, it mystifies nobody that we all expect to talk freely and shop with convenience through electronic networks without establishing some sort of reputation for ourselves. In conditions of the utmost anonymity, living in "communities" where neighbors don't talk to one another, we expect, as Nixon did, to be trusted. And we are outraged to find that it's not possible, and they're subpoenaing our tapes on Capitol Hill. Why, we ask, does anyone need to know all this stuff about me?

The exploitation of personal data that the FTC hearings took up is plainly a serious problem. But nobody wants to admit that privacy itself may really be that problem's root cause rather than its antidote.

Modern life allows us an unprecedented level of physical privacy in real time and space. This isolated existence not only feeds our paranoia but necessitates the electronic record keeping that enables us to deal all day with total strangers. As the scale of interactions and commerce broadens across the Web, the complexity of that record keeping promises only to deepen.

Want to buy gas on credit? Easy! Even easier than the times when the mechanic down the street knew you personally. The difference is that now, the pump will know your name, a distant computer will make a record and the fellow behind the bulletproof glass won't give a damn. He has privacy, you have privacy. Everyone happy?

It's no coincidence that the jurist Louis Brandeis wrote his often-cited, groundbreaking "right to be let alone" privacy screed in 1890, just when the close-knit scrutiny of real villages began to give way to the anonymity of urban life. People took privacy for granted until then; in the days before databases, it was not an abstract quality. One's bedroom or backyard were either private or they weren't -- and one's reputation was rarely more permanent or widespread than the memory banks of the people one dealt with personally.

Over the last 50 years, our journey into suburbs and cars and flickering TV nighttimes behind barred windows has given us extraordinary seclusion in our personal and home lives. And yet we've only felt more insecure. Only 34 percent of Americans polled by the Louis Harris firm expressed concern about personal privacy in 1970. By 1995, the figure was up to 80 percent.

What happened? This growing concern doesn't indicate a simple increase in how much we value privacy, any more than the soaring number of lawyers in the U.S. means we value justice more. Instead, it's a fearful reaction to the collapse of trust in our culture.

In "The Naked Society" (1964), Vance Packard trembled at the 20th century innovations that were draining American life of privacy and autonomy: social control by large, impersonal employers; pressure on companies to scrutinize customer choices in a sophisticated manner in order to compete for market share; galloping advances in electronic technology; and the McCarthy-era adoption of a pervasive top-security mentality in both government and business.

Nearly a decade later, at the dawn of computerized record keeping, James B. Rule pointed out in "Private Lives and Public Surveillance" (1973) that the transition to a society of mobile strangers didn't necessarily increase surveillance -- the prying eyes of small-town neighbors are, he felt, in most cases worse. But it did lead to more centralized surveillance -- out of sight and, for practical purposes, beyond the control of the individual.

By 1993, in the book "The Costs of Privacy," Steven L. Nock attacked privacy itself as the problematic result of systemic social separation. "Privacy grows as the number of strangers grows," Nock wrote. "And since strangers tend to not have reputations, there will be more surveillance when there are more strangers. Privacy is one consequence, or cost, of growing numbers of strangers. Surveillance is one consequence, or cost, of privacy."

Nock called credit cards, those handy generators of much of the personal data we've lost control over, "portable reputations." In the era of the Internet, cheap computing and an increasingly global economy, those portable reputations record more and more of our activities, and more and more strangers and institutions demand them from us. The trends toward economic consolidation, less face-to-face accountability in our public lives and faster computing will exert great pressure for ever more elaborate identification and credentialing schemes. The spread of the use of the social security number to 60 government agencies is one result of this pressure. Retina and thumbprint scans, already in pilot testing, will be the next.

We can complain all we want about Big Brother, but when we wrested our reputations from human memory and turned them over to far less judgmental computer circuits and phone lines -- vanquishing those nasty old village snoops who might keep us from living out our hearts' desires -- reputation remained as important as ever. The difference is that even as we have downplayed its significance -- whether out of honest egalitarianism or excessive individualism -- we have consigned it to the banal, impersonal testing ground of supermarket checkout stands and pre-employment background checks.

The only thing a computer ever asks is: Are you approved, or not? And everyone from medical insurers to prospective employers to creditors views us as a potential threat until our data prove otherwise. Setting up new privacy regulations isn't going to alleviate this pressure; it may only lead to more elaborate credentials and invasive identifiers for individuals, and increased secrecy for the institutions that manage our reputations.

Privacy, particularly when enshrined in law, can protect the corrupt and malign as well as the good and upstanding. But the bulk of breathless newspaper reports issuing forth on this issue since last year have almost universally ignored this, instead focusing on the hypothetical risks of baddies out there finding out where Joe Consumer lives and (gasp!) what his children's names are. Most have taken the same grave, utterly simplistic angle: Privacy good. Stalkers bad. Internet dangerous. Call Congressman. All have invariably repeated the same shopworn Top 10 privacy-violation horror stories, mostly hypothetical and mostly based on the absurdity of having to hide out from one's HMO, spoon-fed to hungry reporters by a small group of widely quoted privacy activists. James Wheaton, senior counsel of the First Amendment Project, an Oakland, Calif., group trying to protect and expand the Freedom of Information Act, laments "enormous imprecision" in the concerns raised by some of these activists.

By giving government officials the power to deny public-records access to anyone without credentials (i.e. the little guy), Wheaton says, "the privacy activists may inadvertently be helping the moneyed interests and doing nothing for greater security." Even with their good intentions and a laudable commitment to civil liberties, the professional privacy advocates have little besides fear as a selling point -- fear of the stalker, the fraud perpetrator, the government agency run amok . But the fear and paranoia that have become so entrenched in the public mind are the primary cause of all this high-tech surveillance in the first place, because nobody wants to deal with anybody in person any more.

Sure, there are legitimate issues of informational privacy, and at their best, the FTC hearings constructively aired them. Businesses that collect personal information from Web browsing should have some regulation against selling it, and anyone can see that companies compiling dossiers on every American are a threat to -- well, let's not bring up Hitler again. But the drumbeat of scare stories has focused too much attention on the Internet, even though nobody has explained how the Internet causes the problems in any direct or unique way. Credit-card fraud, costing literally billions of dollars in losses in recent years, was a problem as soon as credit cards were invented -- and the Secret Service, which investigates computer crime, has no evidence to date that the resourceful credit-fraud rings have sought or needed help from the Internet.

It's ironic that Americans are asking for privacy protection from the same government that has in the last few years expanded electronic surveillance beyond Richard Nixon's wildest dreams -- always with an appeal to public fear and mistrust. Federal agencies are creating centralized databases to track every new job hire in the country (to catch illegal immigrants and deadbeat dads), to make sure that welfare recipients don't overstay their five years by changing states and to provide instant "terrorist" profiling to airport security agents. The country has not hesitated in the last few years to wipe out the civil liberties of whole swaths of the population in futile gropes for greater public security that's never attained.

But as soon as the most minute interest of upper-income people is threatened, Congress is shut down with phone calls, as it was during the Lexis-Nexis fiasco last summer and the Social Security Web site controversy this April. Privacy is a vastly different issue to those whose names aren't on anyone's direct-mail list. Ask a homeless person what "privacy" means and the answer might involve a large appliance box. Once you're on the street, you're a reputation refugee -- and no computer is ever going to approve your e-cash transaction.

Simple loss of privacy is not the real problem underlying all the tossing and turning we're going through over the openness the Internet has thrust upon us. The entire experience of Internet use has total privacy as its point of departure -- "meatspace" privacy, real-time anonymity, the kind that keeps anyone from knowing you're surfing the Web in your partner's underwear.

No, privacy is only part of the equation. The other part is the basic question of trust, that elusive property that we've all, in our hearts, given up on. This wide-ranging loss of our electronic virginity was well under way 20 years ago, but remained invisible until the Web forced us to confront it. We should be grateful for that. The arrival of the Global Village could be an opportunity to reevaluate our notions of trust and strangerhood. Maybe it will force us to.

Nixon's demands for privacy were ultimately fruitless and pathetic because there was no longer any trust to base that privacy on. He never understood that -- and as privacy-loss hysteria begins to push laws through Congress that may do more harm than good, sadly, neither do we.

Jeffrey Obser

Jeffrey Obser is a freelance journalist who has also written about genetics issues for Newsday.

MORE FROM Jeffrey Obser

Related Topics ------------------------------------------