Post-Privacy America

Imagine, if you will, that the police in Ferguson had been wearing cameras. Instead of conflicting stories about what happened, we would have video evidence making the facts clear. Now imagine that instead of sitting on a Ferguson hard drive, the video was automatically uploaded to the Internet. Everything that Ferguson cops do is on display for the whole world at all times. That would make it more difficult for a cop to do something he’s not supposed to do now, don’t you think? Ok, now let’s say all the cops in the country are constantly monitored at all times when on duty. Now what say we monitor them off duty? What if we monitor all state employees, including politicians. You know what? Let’s make everything everyone does known to everyone else.

At first, it’s chaos. Your neighbor now knows about your unusual taste pornography and is too horrified and ashamed to speak with you again. His wife, though, now knows about his taste in other women, and you take out your popcorn and watch on your computer screen the clip of that holier-than-thou jerk getting kicked out of his house, which it turns out is in the name of his soon to be ex-wife. Your children learn a whole lot very quickly about how the world really is. Not only do they discover a wealth of bad words and your unusual taste in pornography, which is very difficult to explain to them, they use the new surveillance program to find santa-claus and discover that it’s just you. You’re not even wearing a santa suit – just your ratty old “Jingle Bell Rock” sweater. Amid all the crying, no one gets much sleep that night. Spending much of the night trying to explain your unusual taste in pornography to your wife, you’re beginning to get a pretty solid opinion that you don’t like this program of radical honesty.

But by the next day the news reports start coming in. You thought the news would be dead, but it turns out they’re more active than ever – somebody’s got to sort through all this information. Three quarters of the scandals attributed to the president turn out to be unequivocally true, but scandals are streaming in from all over the country so quickly that before you’ve finished your breakfast the president is old news – more than half the state and local politicians in the country are getting attacked on both sides for rampant corruption. It seems like almost everyone in power is using that power against rather than for the American people. Talk begins wondering how we can get rid of all this corruption without the country collapsing. Others wonder how this country hadn’t collapsed already. Already overcrowded jails fill even more as the crimes of those not in power show up on the universal recordings. Suffering upon suffering is shown in vivid color to horrified Americans around the country. Poverty, starvation, homelessness,violence, and myriad other social problems are abruptly impossible to ignore. It is a crisis, but we are a nation of crises, and we respond.

As a nation we decide just to use our existing voting system – with our newly educated voting body – to weed out corruption. Our new politicians know that they will be judged based on their actions rather than their rhetoric and politics becomes much more mature as a result. With advanced video analysis, complete information allows for unambiguous statistics that settle what used to be areas of political contention. Does increased government spending help the economy? How many people who are very poor really need help and how many are just lazy? What actions that people and government have taken really help to reduce the demand for abortions? These questions are now answered by facts instead of stump speeches.

Over time, your children learn to live in the world that is rather than the world that they imagined in their ignorance. Your wife stays with you and, while she never really understands your tastes, decides that they aren’t any worse than any other quirk in your personality and the two of you end up closer than ever in the presence of unprecedented mutual understanding. Your friends that remain with you are true friends. Many of them have lost friends when their own secrets became public or when they discovered the horrible things their friends did and still do. Some mourn the passing of these shallow relationships, some are pleased to know who they can and can’t trust.

As your children grow up in the new society, you notice they have no interest in idle chatter. With no secrets, they grew up on harsh realities and important distinctions and they take interest in improving the world rather than hiding behind the fictions that defined previous generations. Their children grow up thinking of privacy and secrets as an antiquated notion – a bizarre artifact of the past that as hard as they try they can’t quite wrap their minds around why it was valued so highly. As your grandchildren come of age, they ask you why people, even people who were not doing bad things, were so obsessed with keeping secrets. “I don’t know,” you admit, “I guess… I guess we were just afraid.”

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6 thoughts on “Post-Privacy America”

  1. Scary! I have many relationships that are helpful and perhaps even necessary to my well-being and to my career in which I would not feel comfortable sharing my deepest secrets and all of my beliefs because it would erode the relationship. I think this sort of openness would really increase isolation. Plus, there would be a safety risk– some people don’t care so much if they get caught and they would be able to stalk and hurt/kill their targets very easily. Of course social media points this in that direction anyway, but it’s got to stop before it reaches this point. A certain amount of privacy is beneficial to maintaining useful and beneficial relationships.

  2. In terms of people being able to stalk and hurt/kill people, their actions and whereabouts would be known, too, and law enforcement could stop them before they made their move. In terms of deep emotional secrets it would no doubt take a lot of adjustment for people to be comfortable in this new society, but it’s interesting to consider what a society like this would be like.

  3. I lean toward scary, Sam, but your post is very well imagined and described. It feels like the premise for a fine novel or short story.

    1. Yeah, I think of this more as a miniature science fiction story than a call to action or anything. Such a radical change in the real world deserves a lot more prior consideration than I put into this post.

  4. I agree with Tom–this is a good blog post but it would be a great short story. I’m reading a science fiction novel where privacy is a sort of weasel word for isolation, and concepts like love and friendship are privacy violations. I think the name of the game should be balance. Currently, there is an imbalance in the level of transparency demanded of citizens and the level of transparency provided by the government. I think this can be corrected without creating the world you outlined. It would still be a great story.

  5. Because we don’t know what a person is thinking, we have no way of knowing what someone will do next, even if we know what that person is doing now. In a scenario, a man might not know that he wants to sexually assault a woman until he realizes that they are alone together and that no one is watching. Of course, in theory, someone is always watching. But if one can see what literally every other person is doing, including the people who are paid to monitor behavior, and if one is observant enough, one might find the slightest sliver of opportunity.

    I imagine him asking himself, “why not take the risk? She’s attractive enough, and I know for a fact that this is the first opportunity I’ve had to have sex unobserved in months. Thank god Frank and George at the police department had a late poker game last night and fell asleep on the job. And it will be three minutes before Lucy, their supervisor, finds out because she’s still monitoring the whereabouts of the dispatched officers tending to that 10-90 in progress. And this woman’s neighbors are asleep, or watching television, or having sex, or just not paying attention at this moment, because the novelty of other people’s lives has worn off. And so what if I get caught partway through? The police and the neighbors can’t take the first few seconds of coital bliss away from me.”

    Of course, Frank and George loose their jobs, Lucy is demoted, the man is imprisoned (and brutalized in prison, the one place where nothing further can really be done about how people treat each other beyond solitary confinement, which is a huge drain on the state’s fiscal resources, and execution, which is only legal in some states). The neighbors feel bad that they weren’t paying attention, so they start tuning-in for a few months, until they realize that nothing bad or interesting is going to happen again for a little while.

    But the woman can never be un-raped. And the very system that was designed to protect her failed, just for a moment, and her rapist was able to fully observe and comprehend the momentary opportunity he was accidentally given.

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