Privacy isn’t what it used to be

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On Slate, Emily Bazelon laments her colleagues’ lack of outrage at the revelations of the National Security Agency’s vacuuming up of data on what all of us are doing. In the New York Times, Ross Douthat explains it in terms of an internet motto: “abandon all privacy, ye who enter here.”

Privacy is soooo 20th century, no?

Yes. We now live in a world where we are constantly making choices that trade our privacy for convenience, from Easy Pass to global positioning to, of course, all the on-line services and commerce that we indulge in. No wonder the collective yawn at news that the federal government is doing what we assume Google is doing, in the (presumed) interest of public safety.

But what’s going on here is not just a loss of privacy. The conception of privacy itself is becoming attenuated in contemporary society. Diaries and letters used to be a staple of middle-class life. Now we post our reflections, our photos — our formerly private things — on public or semi-public websites. We share them, in effect inviting others, whom we quaintly call friends, to take a piece of us.

Of course, privacy had to be invented, and much of the invention had to do with religion. Confession of sins begins as a public act. It took centuries for Christians in the West to do it privately, in the ear of a confessor. Jesuits developed self-examination to a fine art.

In America, Puritans took to minutely scrutinizing their thoughts and feelings, and recording the results in journals. The Victorian novel is nothing if not an exercise in the exploration of individual privacy — perhaps brought to its apotheosis by that most proper of Bostonians, Henry James. It’s no wonder that the Boston lawyers Louis D. Brandeis and Samuel Warren should have discerned a constitutional right to privacy — a right to live one’s life “screened from public observation” — in 1890.

What the implications of the attenuation of privacy will be for religion is anyone’s guess. But one way of understanding what is happening is via the increasing number of Americans who say they have no religion. In the Digital Age, what you are is what you do in public, and if you don’t do religion in public, you’re not doing it. The habits of the heart don’t count for as much as they once did.

  • “In the Digital Age, what you are is what you do in public, and if you don’t do religion in public, you’re not doing it. The habits of the heart don’t count for as much as they once did.”

    This makes me think of the passage in Matthew that tells us we can identify false prophets “by their fruits”. Actions speak louder than words.

    For this reason, I’m not sure I agree with your sentiment quoted above. You can “do religion in public” by behaving in a manner that’s consistent with what your religion requires you to do, even if you make no explicit mention of your religious beliefs.

    The habits of the heart are seen by the fruit they bear so yes, I think they do still count for a lot.

    There’s also a troubling logical problem in this post: How do you know people *aren’t* spending time writing journals or meditating privately about their beliefs when, by definition, such activities are invisible to the rest of the world, including journalists such as yourself?

    Just because people are posting more often on public forums doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing less private thinking.

  • gilhcan

    As with everything, there are respectable uses and despicable abuses. Secrecy is no exception. One of the strangest and most dangerous results of high secrecy is that practiced by the Catholic Church for many centuries–not that personal sins in the religious setting of a “sacrament” should be made public. But then there is the super-secrecy starting with the popes and their Vatican curia on down the line to diocesan and parish operations. We’ve seen a mammoth amount of that in the continuing cover-up of clerical and religious sex abuse.

    It appears our CIA, NSA, and many functions of our federal government, our Congress and presidents, all of whom were supposedly hired to work for us, for our benefit, have learned their lessons from the Vatican as much as the “former” Soviet Union’s KGB.

  • gilhcan

    I would suggest that the only “habits of the heart” are functioning as a pump to move our blood and oxygen through the body.

    It’s an ancient metaphor, I know, but I thinks it’s past the time when we should be relating “good” feelings to the heart when both good and bad feelings are really a function of mind, just as are thoughts. The heart may pump faster at times, but that can be perfectly normal, even related to certain feelings–or angina, arteriosclerosis, or other problems that need medical attention.

  • gilhcan

    How about the guarantees we are given from internet sites that they have no way of knowing or storing our credit card information. But once you use the internet for a possible purchase, you are then inundated every time your go to another site for anything, not even related, not even buying, with advertising from all kinds of sites offering what you had been seeking days, weeks, and months before.

  • Doc Fox

    It is certainly true that there are multiple ways in which government and industry track what we do.
    First, government. Your license plate tells people where your vehicle is from, and any officer can ‘run’ the plate to see whose it is and where down to the street address it is from. We accept this.
    The Internet. Websites are often equipped with devices (called Trackers) to track where the person visiting the site has ‘been’ before, and can plant cookies that help keep track of where you go thereafter. Some have an innocent business purpose, and some a real seller’s purpose. With the Safari browser, at least, there are “extensions” one can attach to the app that stop these devices in their tracks.
    This Religion News Site (or its webserver provider) has Google Adsense, Google AJAX Search API, Google Analytics, Quantcast, and ShareThis items that are blocked by my Safari extension Ghostery.
    The NSA was receiving data at least from Verizon that permitted a computer [no human(s) would have the time] to see what phone number(s) was/were connecting to or connected by what other phone number(s). (Not who was talking, and not what was said, at least not without further warrant addressing the particular phone.) The idea that anyone was listening to all of these is absurd. NSA has nowhere near the number of employees to accomplish that.
    One thing the fuss and bother did accomplish was to make sure every ‘bad guy’ with the brains to be successful as a bad guy, has changed his phone service and/or has bought a years supply of disposable phones. Let’s hope the sleuths weren’t on the verge of finding out where the next atrocity or crime was about take place.
    Meanwhile every computer in the US has ample evidence in it of where it has ben of late, depending on the browser’s provision to delete unused cookies periodically. And some sites have the programming to sleuth that info from you, unless you block them.