Our friends, families, neighbors, governments, and corporate overlords all have new ways to invade our everyday lives through technology. Because Americans have long considered privacy a basic right, we fight back, and feel justified in doing so.
But the erosion of privacy seems inevitable in our increasingly digital world. It’s possible that privacy as we knew it in the 20th century will never be attainable again. Surrendering privacy is something we’ve collectively done since everyone’s mom got on Facebook. Why are we so quick to give up our privacy, and what could the world gain by giving it up?
The Opposite of Privacy
Let’s try an optimistic definition to the opposite of privacy: Togetherness. Publicity. Sociableness. Transparency. The internet is the opposite of privacy. We humans love it.
What’s bad about transparency? Transparency in government, commerce, education, and other institutions is something we often strive for.
But transparency is disruptive. Disruption is the means to rapid change. Disruption is knocking the blocks down so they can be rebuilt. Disruption is about finding new solutions that are better than the old ones.
A Pre-Existing Condition
Since the Federal government passed HIPAA (a 1996 law designed to digitize and standardize your healthcare information) it may have become harder to switch health insurance policies as a person with a pre-existing condition. That’s because insurance companies could gain access to your digitized records in ways that were not previously possible. The law claimed to enforce privacy, but in practice, more people than ever could gain access to a person’s medical records, including insurers and employers. This newly established transparency caused people with pre-existing conditions (who are more costly to insure) to often be denied health coverage for six-month or one-year waiting periods — which is a serious problem for someone with a medical condition.
In practice, the portability of medical records may have eroded patient privacy. Was life before HIPAA better? Medical records didn’t have standardized privacy protection, and they were also often on paper, saved in proprietary formats, decentralized, and generally less likely to be shared without the patient’s voluntary effort. It was easier to simply withhold the facts about your pre-existing condition thanks to the tacit privacy a less digital world offered. Omitting health details when switching doctors was easier before HIPAA, and practical for anyone who didn’t want their health records in the hands of insurers.
It’s possible that HIPAA’s presumably well-meaning intervention actually exacerbated the “pre-existing condition” issue. If that’s the case, HIPAA is an early example of a digital disruption exposing a real problem in the medical world, making it worse, then being corrected by policy and public outcry years later.
Inside the Closet
Widespread support for gay rights, gay marriage, and LGBT issues has risen massively since the internet came along. Although this could be a coincidence, I suspect the greater transparency we’ve come to expect from people — both celebrities and everyday acquaintances — has given us greater insight into LGBT issues.
In the 2000s, the most widely cited reason Pew survey participants gave for their increasing support of gay rights was knowing someone who was gay. But on the internet, social media enables us to know and keep tabs on a larger and more diverse set of past friends and acquaintances than we could otherwise, and to glimpse more personal parts of their lives. It’s more likely than ever that you have a gay friend, even if you don’t see them much.
On the flip side, if you’re hiding a secret, it’s harder than ever. Whether you’re concealing a same-sex partner or an obsession with model trains, someone can easily post about it online — if you’re not tempted to post something about it yourself. And on social media, you can tacitly express information about your lifestyle rather than explicitly saying it aloud at someone’s dinner table.
Is it possible that greater transparency into people’s formerly unseen affairs caused improved acceptance of LGBT rights and issues, counter-culture, and “alternative” lifestyle choices? If so, openness above privacy is making gains in the realm of human rights.
Black Lives Matter and Streaming
Newer than social media is the emergence of simple video sharing. Because we can easily film and share videos from our smartphones, we’re exposing the brutal way some police officers operate in ways that are shocking and irrefutable. YouTube is now brimming with videos of police brutality, largely against people of color, and the Black Lives Matter movement is a likely result.
Counter to many police officers’ long-held ideas of privacy, this democratized exposé of how police do their jobs is unfolding on the national stage. How can we deal with the chronic brutality issue and find a way to trust police? A lot of people have ideas, which vary from rating police officers, Yelp-style, to making police officers wear cameras constantly. These approaches both leverage transparency, a time-honored solution to institutional corruption.
If transparency is so widely accepted as a solution to social issues, how soon could people perceive its opposite — privacy — as a social pariah?
Privacy Isn’t Dead … Yet
It’s obvious that the idea of privacy isn’t dead today. But where will it be in 20 years, or 50 years? Today’s demands for privacy may look dated and selfish to the observers of tomorrow. Today we’re already voting for transparency with our time and attention, and we aren’t hoarding privacy like we used to.