Interestingly, its a James Comey quote that brought this question to mind.
James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, agrees. “There is no such thing as absolute privacy in America,” he said in the wake of the “Vault 7” leaks. “All of us have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our homes, in our cars, and in our devices. But it also means with good reason, in court, government, through law enforcement, can invade our private spaces.”
I found this quote in this recent Truthdig article.
Some say that privacy is dead. That is certainly one conclusion to draw. However, another could be . . . this current definition of the word privacy as an umbrella term, is dead. Or at very least, it is inadequate in the 21st century.
In the past, pretty much right up until very recently (were talking 15, maybe 20 years), privacy has meant the same thing pretty much universally. In the vast majority of cases, for the vast majority of people, private conversations were indeed . . . private. Assuming that you were not a criminal (or on the wrong side of some powerful person and/or entity) you had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Out in public has always depended on who is nearby, but in closed and private quarters . . . you were generally safe from all prying ears.
However, the telephone changed that (particularly after it became possible to assign individual telephone lines to individual phones). Person A calls person B, they talk on a line that is presumably privy only to them. And so it likely was for decades (again, assuming that they were not suspected to be involved in any criminal or otherwise underhanded activity). The first private means of communication by proxy. And at the same time, the first form of private communication wherein that privacy may just be an illusion.
Telephone and fax were just the first in this new category, however. The internet took it to a whole new level. Much like the real world of which it now exists in parallel with, the internet and its platforms are an intermingled mesh of both private, public, and semi private habitats. Generally, you know when your words or content is publicly available. Its a bit harder to recognize semi-private places (such as facebook profiles, depending on privacy settings). But private places are fairly obvious.
Email conversations. Instant messenger conversations. Video and/or audio calls. Anything between only selected parties, but no one else.
We all know (or at least we SHOULD all know by now) that such is not entirely true. Even seemingly private communications online, may not in fact be. Because all of those in charge of governing the world are keeping fairly close tabs on the internet. All manor of information shared though any platform, is generally available if requested. In fact, the entirety of the internet (that is to say, every single aspect of your digital existence!) is being recorded.
Being that not all of this is centered around each of us individually, think of every single person in a nation as being contributors to a constant and ever changing flow of noise and data. Head upstream a ways, and you have a torrent of jumbled god knows what in transit to god knows where. As this torrent continuously flows, a mirror image of all of this is taken in real time and stored away, becoming the latest addition to hundreds of thousands of terabytes of data. Data that is a jumbled mess in its raw form, but data that intelligence agencies are increasingly figuring out how to manipulate and utilize by way of algorithms. Or to put it another way, figuring out how to find a varied series of pin heads throughout the entirety of the pacific ocean.
Now, the ethics, dangers, and ultimate utility of hoarding this ocean of raw (mostly useless) data are other conversations that I am not really interested in (at least in this piece). What I am more interested in, is pinning down the interesting place for which we find ourselves in this age of information.
I think its safe to say that pretty much the entirety of our digital lives ends up becoming a part of this giant 21st century matrix. Even phone calls, texts, banking information . . . likely even more. So, knowing the difference between what is public and semi-private, can the word private really be used in the context of the internet (or really, throughout our digital existence)?
When I call/email/text/IM/chat with another person, for all intents and purposes of the moment, the conversation is generally private. I can rant and rave about people around me with an expectation of it staying behind closed doors. I do always (well, at times) acknowledge the possibility of a 3ed set of eyes or ears (though I generally don’t give it much thought, as avoidance would entail compete disconnection). But more importantly, can I (or any of us) call any communications we have by proxy, private?
If not, do you have a word that you think should be substituted?
Feel free to have your say below (even if you don’t have a possible replacement word).