“If you read someone else’s diary, you get what you deserve.” David Sedaris
At the end of the year, the good folks at Alphabet kindly shared my Google history for 2019 with me, and Google Maps sent me the link to every place I had been.[i] In detail. I drill down and follow a walk around the wildlife refuge or a ride to Dummer’s Beach Campground in Maine practically minute by minute with every stop, lingering moment or digression along the way. The good folks at Amazon Kindle showed me how to access my reading history on any of their devices or apps. Page turns, how long I typically hung out on a page or a paragraph, what caught my attention or sent me off on a related search; the words I looked up, and those I didn’t. Google let me know every place I had been while sitting in my home and touring the web. They obligingly tell me exactly how to delete my browsing or reading or traveling history, so I will not be able to find it. Reassuring as that may seem to me, they will have not lost the trail. Our ubiquitous Smart TVs, wired homes, food processors, refrigerators, autos, Alexa genies, Facebook likes and dislikes help accrue our unique data trail that is dogged as if with trained bloodhounds which pick up scents in parts per million with exponentially more sensitive noses than mere human ones. The tracker hounds scour the hints with their autodidact algorithms, digging, digging, sniffing, finding.
The so helpful convenience of an always on phone gathers it all: should we want directions, or an elusive half remembered factoid, or something to eat; they will store every scrap, then load it all up into massive redundant servers in remote locations, protected like nuclear waste sites waiting for inevitable leaks. Along with everyone else’s trails: your movements, internet searches, left or right clicks, intentional or not, where you spent extra time, what you read, what branches of knowledge or information you explored, products you bought or considered, texts and emails saved and deleted, hopes, dreams, fantasies, curiosities. Everything. Every moment. Wherever you were or hoped to be. How many times do we need to mention something in a personal email or click over briefly to a link in futile hope of secrecy, then be inundated for days with related ads or invitations before we grasp this?
What was once reserved for an omniscient Being, now is in megabytes and relentlessly analyzed, mined, sold and exploited for gain by a constantly evolving, learning, metastasizing artificial intelligence with almost limitless resources. Omniscience as merchandise. All to benefit us, to convenience us, to keep us in the loop, to “customize our experience.”
Privacy is myth if you are or ever have been connected. And who hasn’t? The horse has fled as if from a fire, the barn door is not just open but missing – gone, a void.
“Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.” Louis Brandeis (dissent in Olmstead vs U.S., 1928)
But what is privacy exactly? Everyone has their own translation. Privacy can mean freedom from restraint, license to do what we want to do free from scrutiny. Privacy has been construed in a wide range: from polite decorum and merely keeping private conversations closed off from the eager ears of gossips to graphic and addictive pornography accessible to young people or even to subverting the law such as those that once attempted to regulate abortion.[ii]
While we hold privacy dear and most dear for ourselves, we take hidden pleasure in the exposure of the titillating shame of others, especially disgraced heroes or enemies. Think Jeffrey Epstein. Few of us are truly unburdened from schadenfreude[iii]. Privacy as a shield to do what is shameful or privacy ripped away as a weapon to destroy another person’s reputation. Clearly the privacy we all desire is not always welcome when contemplating the juicy embarrassment of another.
Is the cloak of privacy or its loss a simple thing? Perhaps not. Can conscience be muted with privacy indulged too long? Perhaps so. We need to take great care in the shadows.
“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice. (She was so much surprised, that for the moment, she quite forgot how to speak English).” Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass
[i] No doubt at the behest of Alphabet’s army of lawyers to cover their backsides of liability for selling oceans of data collected on their customers for large profits. It is possible to shut off such tracking, but how can one ever truly determine that? There are many articles on this. Here’s just one: https://www.businessinsider.com/what-does-google-know-about-me-search-history-delete-2019-10
[ii] In the much debated Roe V Wade decision and its successors that prohibited any state law restricting abortion for any reason or no reason, the basis of the decision was a ‘right to privacy’ not found explicitly in the Constitution, but relying mostly on prior decisions such as Griswold V State of Connecticut. In Griswold, Justice Douglas “discovered” (some would say created out of whole cloth) a right to privacy based on ‘penumbras’ (from the Latin paene umbra, meaning “almost a shadow”) and ‘emanations’ of other explicitly delineated constitutional rights. A reliance on such a dubious contrivance, previously undiscovered in 176 years of jurisprudence, allows almost anything. Judicial activism in service of an ideology at its most blatant.
[iii] Schadenfreude is the terrific German word for taking joy from the suffering of our enemies.