Privacy is a hot topic these days, thanks to the internet and the growing population of smart devices all around us. Our capacity to gather information on other people has never been greater — and the same goes for the opportunity to misuse that information.
But what constitutes “misuse”? How much privacy do we expect as our natural due? Like our other topics this month, this is a subtle aspect of society that can vary widely from one context to another.
There are probably more formal terms I could be using here, but since I don’t know them, I’m going to device “privacy” into three general layers. The first is physical privacy, i.e. the ability to keep yourself and your surroundings free of observation. This has shifted a lot over time, as modern affluence makes it far more common for people to have things like detached houses and individual bedrooms, or even to live completely alone. Even the wealthy people of the past rarely had as much physical privacy as we have now, because they depended far more on servants to handle the day-to-day operations of their households. That trope of people having illicit sex in haylofts? It isn’t because haylofts are the peak of rural comfort; it’s because the house was the last place you could go to get away from prying eyes and ears. This has implications for theft, too, with thieves rarely having the opportunity to ransack a completely empty house, or to do so without a neighbor noticing.
I’d also group our belongings under the heading of physical privacy. Do you have a place to keep things where others won’t see? How secure is that place against someone coming to snoop? This encompasses not only the aforementioned detached houses and individual bedrooms — and locations therein, like under the mattress or in a personal locked chest — but modern conveniences like safe-deposit boxes and railway lockers. The latter in particular offer highly anonymized storage, without even a paper trail connecting the user to the location. As a result, they crop up frequently in stories of crime, espionage, and terrorism. (Pity the thieves of the past, who had to stash their ill-gotten gains in less secure locations and just hope nobody else stumbled across them.)
My second category is one I’ll call social privacy, which can be glossed as “how much is your business everybody else’s business?” This again has shifted over time, partly in tandem with the aforementioned rise in individualism. On the level of community, many of us have far more privacy than we would have even a hundred years ago: it’s entirely possible to live in a neighborhood or an apartment building and not know the names of any of your fellow residents, much less what’s going on in their lives. Your medical, marital, and monetary problems are not automatically common knowledge anymore.
Other forms of social privacy have shifted more unevenly. We still expect parents to stay informed on their kids’ business — though, admittedly, less than we may have in the past. Because of the emphasis on individualism, we tend to have a greater expectation that as the child matures, the parent will grant them more privacy, usually under the header of “independence.” But in other societies, the notion that even a grown adult with kids of their own could tell their mother or father to butt out would be unspeakably shocking: there, the parental right to know is lifelong.
Where marriages are concerned, the imbalance of privacy doesn’t always run along the lines you would assume. Yes, it’s generally the case that in a patriarchal society (which is most of ’em), the husband will have a greater right to demand knowledge of his wife’s activities than she does of his. But depending on what type of authority the wife has over the domestic sphere, the shoe can potentially wind up on the other foot. I remember one of my professors talking about carpet-weaving communities in Turkey, where the family’s income derives heavily from the women’s production; as a consequence, husbands there had to account for their expenditures, asking their wives for money to buy even small things like tobacco.
The final layer, as I’m dividing this up, is institutional privacy. This is the type we’re deeply concerned with right now, thanks to technological innovation making institutional surveillance easier and easier. Now it’s not just your wife but your credit card company who knows how you’ve been spending your money . . . and if you’ve been imprudent in the past, then not just financial institutions but prospective employers and even the landlord of an apartment you want to rent may know all about it. Meanwhile, the government could theoretically invade your privacy at every level. The reason we have laws around things like wire taps and warrants to enter someone’s home is to keep that power in check.
It isn’t just about technology, though. In our capitalist society, information on people’s behavior is valuable. Tracking your browser activity allows companies to target you with ads that stand a higher chance of enticing you to spend money. In the hands of political organizations, it helps them identify who’s already sold on their message, who can perhaps be convinced, and who is a waste of time to target. I separate this from social privacy because it’s no longer really about who you are as a person; instead, you become a bundle of traits that can — these groups hope — be used to maneuver you into a desired set of behaviors.
The thing about privacy is that, like individualism and collectivism, it has both its good and bad sides. Letting a company have information on your buying habits means they’re more equipped to alert you to items or services you might genuinely want! . . . at the risk that they might use that to shape what you want, steering you toward whatever’s most profitable for them. And once that information is out there, it can be used for all kinds of other purposes. With the overturn of Roe v. Wade in the United States and the push by conservative extremists to treat miscarriage as an event requiring criminal investigation, the mere fact that someone spends time looking up information on pregnancy and childbirth, then suddenly stops, could be evidence of malfeasance. This is the stuff of which science fictional dystopias are made.
This double-edged nature doesn’t only apply at the institutional level, though. You may enjoy not having nosy neighbors peering over the fence or hearing your domestic spats through a too-thin apartment wall, but the flip side is that they can’t be there for you in a crisis if they have no idea one is even going on. And if they do know, will they care? After all, there’s no meaningful social bond between you. Loss of privacy is part of how we connect with other humans; we just call it intimacy instead. The price of independence and privacy is isolation and loss of support. The question therefore becomes, how much of it does each person and each society want to buy?