Sean Bell, 13 October 2009
Introduction: The fuzzy boundary of privacy
What is private? Is it the opposite of public? What is public? Even if you’re confident you can answer these questions, it is still difficult to say what information should be public and what should be private. When so much data about shopping habits, internet searches, health and emotional well-being is held by both huge commercial concerns and the state, or is self-published on social networking sites and blogs, the dividing line between privacy and publicity is fuzzy.
The belief in a private and personal space has so far just about survived the ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ onslaught of recent years, as evidenced by the fairly widespread suspicion abour the introduction of identity cards in the face of terrorist threats. But there is no consensus on what the function of privacy might be and, by extension, where and how privacy might be practised. The drive to reveal and investigate that seems to destroy privacy comes not only from campaigners for transparency, but is a social pressure built on the perceived risks of ignorance about the individual.
As so much becomes public, or at least publically available, where does privacy belong? As the very definitions of privacy and private are problematic, I start from the fuzzy edge where the public sphere and its drive to eradicate privacy collide with people’s expectations of privacy. In its pure and abstract ideal, privacy has been the state of security in which personal needs and wants may be satisfied without interference from outside. It is isolation from the many in the haven provided by the self and the few. The preservation of such a space seems impossible when almost everything about a person can be retrieved from the records of their social and economic transactions. For those who cannot remember any but a wired world, that kind of private space makes no sense and probably has no purpose.
Below I will look at the dilemma of the private through the distorting lens of the drive to a public scrutiny that cannot accept privacy.
Can privacy be maintained in any public role?
Public life has developed a detachment from ordinary experience that can destroy the social lives of those in the public eye. This is not just true of TV personalities, politicians and other celebrities. The worldwide use of self-published Facebook material to discipline young athletes suggests that, if you have any kind public role at all, you can suddenly become victim to the double standards involved in making private and personal actions commensurate with public actions. It is not just that social networking and the internet allowed compromising material to become widely publicised; there has been a radical shift in what private information might be considered relevant to a public role.
Young sports competitors’ primary role, to prevail on the field of competition is supplemented by new expectations of behaviour that bestow on them the secondary role of role model. Under the sway of this panoptical logic, no matter who you are or what you do, you may be investigated. In the case of athletes, the unsurprising news that young people like enjoying themselves has been elevated into a public issue because young people now routinely display themselves enjoying themselves.
There is usually nothing in the completely commonplace Facebook material that compromises their ability to compete. The privacy of the athletes is not violated because they had originally published the material themselves, albeit to friends, not the world. But what they did privately was applied to, and compared with, the small and short-term public role they were to play. The Facebook exposure of athletes was so common that the Observer published a guide for athletes to Facebook use in March this year (1). If it is considered correct to take sanctions against people for normal life, where would the drive to scrutiny of behaviour ever end?
There is an understandable concern about what big business does with all the data it has on us. This is reflected by the many attempts to increase the amount of transparency in the actions of companies and governments. But this works both ways as there is also a drive toward transparency aimed at individuals; because companies, governments and all other organisations can claim a duty of responsibility to the public. If openness and revelation is considered desirable and a precaution against risk, it becomes a social force of disclosure that knows no logical limits to the investigation of what might be disclosed and what might be being held back.
Very humble roles in society now carry increasingly heavy costs of disclosure. Care workers, youngsters’ sports club coaches and school crossing patrol people (lollipop men and women) have their records checked by the Criminal Records Bureau. The CRB checks currently search for violent and sexually deviant behaviour that may render a person unsuitable for the supervision of children. Further kinds of checks are being considered as I write.
When your local lollipop lady, who supervises children only in public, must wait weeks before she can take up her role, the suspicion of her private intentions and past activities comes before any other consideration. It was hard enough to recruit school crossing patrols, children’s sports coaches and carers before the CRB checks; now these low paid or virtually unpaid functions attract suspicion of the worst kind. The checks are a bureaucratic nightmare but their streamlining would not diminish the implicit distrust in individuals that they communicate.
Because children are particularly vulnerable, people who work with them will probably have to face further suspicion and investigation. The force behind this scrutiny is the desire to be seen to be doing something about the potential for abuse. It does not have to show any kind of effectiveness in actually preventing abuse. The CRB checks would not have prevented the murders by a school caretaker that preceded their introduction.
Our society has usually said that what you do in private, if it doesn’t affect anyone else, is your affair and none of anyone else’s business. It doesn’t any more because the scope and scale of what might affect anyone else can become relevant to almost any form of public responsibility imaginable. The urge to intervene on the grounds of certain kinds of risk is one that encourages all kinds of agencies to lobby for their own modifications to the investigative powers of the public sphere. This raises two problems for privacy. First, there can never be any information about anyone identified as a potential risk that would not be sought, even if it is of the most ordinary kind. If information is not known it represents risk itself, to actual people or to the organisation that is represented. Second, because there is almost no one who can be said to play no social role whatsoever, there is the potential to raise suspicion of almost everyone.
The fuzzy edge of privacy retreats in the face of risks to the vulnerable in society and risks to the reputations of the organisations that employ them or that they represent. This drive to disclosure poses serious risks to ordinary people in ordinary jobs because what might be considered inappropriate to their public roles is completely subjective. The inconvenience of the CRB checks only discourages people from playing minor public roles regardless of them actually posing any risk to anyone. The more dangerous effect of the general risk-aversion recommended when working with children is that most people, even many parents, are genuinely nervous of being near children not their own.
Transparency obscures the privatisation of public space
The growth of suspicion of the public (or other people) has spawned a suspicion of the public among itself. Esther Rantzen filmed a stunt in Brighton’s shopping centre where a child actor was left unattended for some time (2). Many people passed him by, despite his convincing simulation of distress. Interviewed afterward, it transpired many people had not offered to help the child because they were worried about being accused of paedophilia. In public today in Britain, people operate on the maxim that it is best to mind one’s own business rather than to get involved. When the campaigning journalist who originally made child abuse a headline issue in Britain displayed a distressed child, she found that fear of being suspected of paedophilia overcame people’s instincts to help.
Brighton’s shopping centre, like many others, is not really a public space. It is privatised, with its own security and rules that are a little different from the public street, so that the passers-by in Rantzen’s stunt could console them selves that there were staff members somewhere on hand. These staff presumably had to steer clear of the child actor and Esther’s secret film crew, to avoid ruining the results of her ‘experiment’.
The sense of public duty that still exists has been discouraged in this example in two ways. Privatised public spaces do not lend themselves to the exercise of public duty because it becomes someone else’s job, and not that of members of the public. Second, the purpose of public duty - to maintain a socially desirable outcome from situations where the public is in the best position to respond – is defeated by the public suspicion of private motives, particularly in relation to children. As a corresponding experiment, how long could any adult unaccompanied by children sit in a public playground, watching the children play, without being challenged? Personal responsibility is also discouraged because it is no longer required for the maintenance of a more privatised space.
Public spaces in general have widely been regarded as becoming more privatised for decades following Jurgen Habermas’s seminal work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962). Increasingly, you have to fit in and look like you belong to the right bit of the public that is supposed to be in the public space for legitimate reasons. Many public spaces, even Brighton’s beach, have become more privatised places where the public is permitted to mingle, under increasingly stringent conditions, rather than entitled to mingle unless there are strong grounds for interference.
Different social pressures have come together to form a new kind of formalised public space that is monitored not by itself, by its membership at any one time negotiating with each other, but by authorities of various kinds. These are increasingly pro-active in removing the need for negotiation. The outcome of this sort of process, if it were all that we experienced, would be that we walk alone in bubbles of maintained personal spaces, interacting in recommended fashions while our sense of public space and the social skills that maintain it are forgotten. All life would be a like a safe school disco where everyone listens to different music on their earpieces, asking each other to dance by text.
Online anonymity is an illusion – just like in life
The freedom that the internet offers to us all, especially as an escape from the conformity and regulation of most of our other interactions with people, makes a refreshing change and adds a new dimension to our personal lives. Online, we have the chance to be anyone we want when we play games, build virtual worlds and seek the digital company of like-minded people from all over the globe.
Many bloggers, Twitterers and online contributors of all kinds use online names that conceal or re-imagine their identities. Because it removes the possibility of sanctions being taken against them, people have a freedom of expression that relies on a disassociation of their online presence from their actual selves. I do not publish anonymously, but I have done so very occasionally in the past and I can understand that many people have good reasons for doing so. Although any blog or Tweet might theoretically be read by anyone, they usually are aimed at a small and select group of other friends or family or community. However, when you publish intentionally to a wide audience, or attempt to do so, the veil of anonymity and the expectation of privacy may become inappropriate at best.
The outcry that followed the naming by The Timesof a police blogger called NightJack indicates how much privacy has become an expectation online, and how people expect to be in control of what is and is not published about them (4). Where they are happy to co-operate with daily surveillance of all kinds in their lives, they demand anonymity when online.
NightJack’s blog was interesting, well written and had a following. The detective applied for and won a court order restricting The Times from naming him, but the newspaper succeeded in reversing it at the Court of Appeal. NightJack was disciplined by his police service and he stopped blogging. The blog could only have been published anonymously for two reasons. First, the detective would not have been allowed to blog by his police superiors. Even if he had had official patronage, it would have been stifling. The blog would have had to conform to that police service’s publicity guidelines which would have ruined it. Secondly, and crucially, anonymity allowed NightJack to step right outside the laws regarding the reporting of ongoing criminal proceedings – laws journalists and publishers would risk imprisonment for breaking. A police officer hiding behind anonymity to publicly comment on live cases he is involved with is disquieting at the very least. Using courts to protect himself from the legal consequences of what he wrote and to decide what newspapers can print is downright alarming.
Most pertinent to our perceptions of privacy, however, is the outcry against The Times for ‘violating’ NightJack’s anonymity. Guardian journalist Emily Bell called it ‘a bad day for bloggers and democracy’ (5)! It doesn’t take a detective to unmask a detective writing about specific cases in a given geographical area; he was bound to be identified sooner rather than later. Nonetheless, some bloggers and their print champions see the right to anonymity online as sacrosanct.
Campaigners in Iran, Egypt, China, Myanmar (Burma) and elsewhere use blogs, tweets and other mobile platforms to organise anonymously against repressive regimes. Bravely and resourcefully, they outflank the state media monopolies to communicate and encourage resistance. Somehow, NightJack’s supporters believe that what they do as anonymous bloggers is somehow connected to this resistance. Belle de Jour is actually a freedom fighter (6)? She’s not even a whistleblower and neither was NightJack.
Anonymity is not usually considered a guarantee of truthfulness or trustworthiness, yet it was seriously discussed as if it was in relation to NightJack’s unmasking. The arguments put forward in defence of NightJack’s identity may be cynical, but they show that online behaviour and real life have diverged. We do not seriously expect to remain anonymous in most respects in our everyday lives, so it is unsurprising that some would defend it online wherever they can, at whatever cost. Because the internet offers both public and private audiences, the different qualities of (private) correspondence and (public) journalism are blurred.
Anonymity might almost be considered the negation of privacy today, rather than a form of it, when life online and off seems to have different and contradictory rules. Anonymity is the desire not to be identified with your actual self at all, of course. But anonymity takes on a new cultural significance if privacy for your actual self is considered all but impossible.
If we have something to fear, you have nothing to hide
Privacy comes under threat in today’s public sphere where disclosure of more and more information can be said to inform public benefits. One benefit might be safety for the vulnerable; a class of people that eventually includes us all. But the simple collecting together of large mines of information has benefits too. Tracking shopping habits fills shelves more efficiently, for example. Online security used to be much more focused on worms and viruses and threats to your computing of that sort. Now the threats of identity theft and data theft are much closer to the online, personal space that forms a distinct part of most people’s lives.
The perception of threat is not the same as the actual risks; that is the lesson of every other kind of crime researched. The most comprehensive cases of identity theft, although rare, were far more inconvenient for the victims in the days of paper documents, before computers took over information storage. As a local hack some 15 years ago, I obtained a copy of a person’s birth certificate through a local library for £10 (to prove the original sex of another person). The potential misuse of such a document has been curtailed in the intervening years by technology, rather than enhanced.
The perception of threat to the personal space that is occupied online cannot go away. New technologies have inherently unpredictable interactions with their human users. They are what the philosopher of science and mind Robert Clowes calls repurposed; people learn new skills and uses for the technology that were often never even envisaged by their creators, who redesign it in response (7). Our wired world is constantly rewired. Facebook has been utterly transformed from its original purpose in five-and-a-bit years by 250 million users (last count).
Society pushes toward transparency from outside this relationship of technology and its users. The public is understood to assume that the withholding of information hides risk. The public benefits of sharing information, particularly online, are part of common sense now. Radical thought of all kinds, or what passes for it, is similarly reaching for a new role for information gathered by the public when it talks up out sourcing and crowd sourcing. The potential for creative new social projects that the internet offers have been eulogised in the popular books Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky and We-Think by Charles Leadbeater (8).
The problem is that when social pressure to disclose becomes identified with the greater good, mechanisms of disclosure, state and private, all conspire to create a tyranny of transparency. There can be no withholding of information in the public interest, except by authorities. If anything, the peer pressure to share personal information for the greater good is stronger than that of the state or commerce because it relies on co-operation with the express aim of sharing.
Such a social pressure to disclose removes all personal control over what should and should not be published. The benefits of ‘publicness’ (9), if they are allowed to trump those of privacy, could spell the end of personal space. Furthermore, if the public is considered so risky, campaigners will try to avoid it. If those who want to effect change do not do so through public interaction, democracy could be destroyed faster than it can be rediscovered, along with the remains of the public sphere.
Sean Bell is one of the founders of The Brighton Salon, an experimental arena for live public discussion, and remains its Secretary. Sean hopes to extend its activities both online and in print. Details of previous Brighton Salons are available at on its website. After working for many years in local newspapers and national trade magazines, as a reporter and sub-editor, he is now studying for an MA in Journalism and Society at the University of East London. Sean aims to investigate new forms of publication and the new content of the public. He is also a School Crossing Patrol operative (lollipop man).
1) Facebook for athletes: a guide, Observer, 1 March 2009
2) Esther V the PC brigade, ITV.com, 3 October 2009
3) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas, J., (1962/1989 in English) Polity: Cambridge
4) Ruling on NightJack author Richard Horton kills blogger anonymity, 17 June 2009
5) A bad day for bloggers and democracy, by Emily Bell, Guardian Organ Grinder blog, 22 June 2009
6) A dangerous precedent, by Belle de Jour, Guardian Comment is free, 19 June 2009
7) Dr Robert Clowes is writing a book called Mind, Brain and Self in the age of Facebook. There is a report of a public discussion of his work in progress at The Brighton Salon website
8) Here Comes Everybody; How Change Happens When People Come Together, Shirky, C., (2008) Penguin: London
We-Think; Mass Innovation Not Mass Production, Leadbeater, C., (2008) Profile: London
9) Transparency benefits us all, even when it hurts, by Jeff Jarvis, Guardian PDA blog, 17 August 2009
"I was amazed by the high quality of the Battle of Ideas 2007 and the intellectual excitement that it provoked."
Prof Malcolm Grant CBE, president and provost, University College London