Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Privacy has been a core value in librarianship for some time because, as Barbara has recently explained, "it’s a necessary condition for the freedom to read whatever you want without risk of penalty." It's a topic that is being reconsidered in the profession, because strict privacy "makes it harder to offer the kind of personalization, such as recommendations based on previous book choices, that the public increasingly expects from online systems. After all, it’s what they get from Amazon."

So it's timely that Siva Vaidhyanathan discusses the state of privacy in our society in a recent review article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Privacy is important, but why? He explains:
When we complain about infringements of privacy, what we really demand is some measure of control over our reputation in the world. Who should have the power to collect, cross-reference, publicize, or share information about us, regardless of what that information might be? ... Through a combination of weak policies, vapid public discussions, and some remarkable technologies like camera phones and the Internet, we have less and less control over our reputations every day. ... Rehabilitation demands substantial autonomy and control over one's record — or at least forgiveness. As long as we are held highly accountable for youthful indiscretions that are easily Googled by potential employers or U.S. customs agents, we limit social, intellectual, and actual mobility. And we deny everyone second chances.
Because privacy "is not a clear and common set of traits," Siva defines four types of privacy domains:
  • Person-to-peer
  • Person-to-firm ("the flow of information to companies from and about consumers")
  • Person-to-state ("Because the state has a monopoly on legitimate violence, imprisonment, and deportation, the cost of being falsely caught in a dragnet is worth considering no matter how unlikely it seems to be.")
  • Person-to-public ("the ways we regulate what those around us know or assume about us")
Moving from defining privacy to examining its invasions, Siva contends that we work in a "Nonopticon," which is the "state of being watched without knowing it, or at least the extent of it." Indeed, "[t]he most pervasive surveillance does not reveal itself or remains completely clandestine... We don't know all the ways we are being recorded or profiled. We are not supposed to understand that we are the product of marketers as much as we are the market. And we are not supposed to consider the extent to which the state tracks our behavior and considers us all suspects in crimes yet to be imagined, let alone committed."

Companies, Siva writes, "want us to relax and be ourselves. ... They are devoted to tracking our eccentricities because they understand that the ways we set ourselves apart from the mass are the things about which we are most passionate. Our passions, predilections, fancies, and fetishes are what we are likely to spend our surplus cash on." And "[e]ven the state wants us to be ourselves": "It wants subversive and potentially dangerous people to reveal themselves through their habits and social connections, not slink away in the dark to avoid obvious surveillance."

Siva believes nothing will really change from small changes, "like better privacy policies." Instead:
We must demand to know the terms of surveillance by our state and its partners in the private sector. We must be allowed to be agents in the construction of our reputations. We must insist on fairness, openness, and accountability in those institutions that commit such widespread surveillance. Otherwise we will cease being citizens. We will be subjects...

1 comment:

Barbara said...

Siva rocks. Nice summary.