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Privacy is (not) dead


If you were at Encina Hall last Thursday evening, you would have run into Dave Eggers, who was in conversation with creative writing professor Tobias Wolff about The Circle, Eggers’ recent dystopian novel about the death of privacy. In Eggers’ world, secrets are lies and privacy is theft; three wise men rule the world and demand that all aspects of human existence flow through its portal. Here, privacy is (really) dead and you are trapped in hyper-visibility ruled by a digital aristocrazia that profits from your individuality. You are watched not by Big Brother, but rather by countless Small Brothers whose surreptitious presence lies beneath, illuminating screens of the gadgets that never leave you. You live in a universal digital dorm room, a panopticon in which everyone is a cube, both watching and being watched by every other cube. You are part of a counterculture everybody else is part of, naked to the shapeless crowd with whom you conform. There are no secrets to be had and you have no right to be forgotten.

The point of a dystopian novel is to show, with its Orwellian brushstrokes, that the truth is closer to fiction than one might think. Eggers adds to a growing number of works—both fiction and non-fiction—that are raising uncomfortable questions about the tyranny of transparency, perpetual presence in social networks and the voracious information appetites of both corporations and governments.

In some ways, these issues have been beaten to death. But their popularity also reflects growing concerns about privacy in an information-saturated world. And this is as it should be: measured against its potential implications, privacy as a concern remains underaddressed. There remains little consensus on what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy that society should work to uphold, and ‘regulation’ has thus been far more akin to fire-fighting than a well-considered framework of rules.

Meanwhile, privacy norms have surreptitiously shifted without our noticing: It is now normal, for example, for parents to track every movement of their children through phone apps; it is normal for employers to have access to employees’ work computers and emails without prior permission (why trust when you can track?); it is normal for governments and profit-making corporations lurking behind ‘terms and conditions’ that are never designed to be read to track our online behavior. Information that our parents’ generation might have jealously guarded is now shared across a dizzying number of channels and platforms, recombined and used in ways of which we have little knowledge. Someone who takes deliberate effort to protect her privacy is easily taken as “having something to hide.”

“Privacy is dead. Get over it.” proclaimed Mark Zuckerberg in a TechCrunch Interview in 2010 as he made the controversial decision to change the privacy settings of Facebook’s 350 million users. The implicit assumption of many technologists who are shaping the online ecosystem and architecture to reflect the new social dial tone for the 21st century is this: Humans, by nature, are social animals, and hyper-connectivity brings humans closer to living authentic lives by eliminating loneliness and enabling full disclosure.

But even if privacy is dead, should we simply ‘get over it’? Perhaps I am indeed less sanguine, but I am of the view that our uniqueness as a species lies in our ability to stand apart from the crowd, to disentangle ourselves from society, to be let alone and to be able to think and act for ourselves. What people don’t share is just as important as what they do share. There is nothing contradictory about the Aristotelian notion that humans are social creatures and Mill’s vision of liberty being grounded in individual autonomy. After all, there is all the difference between saying ‘I want to be alone’, and saying ‘I want to be let alone.’ Defenders of privacy never said the former; Zuckerberg just seems to have missed the point.

Where reality might depart from dystopian sci-fi is this: The diminishing space and freedom to be let alone may have little to do with an insidious grand plan to undermine privacy in the abstract. Rather, there are simply actors doing what they can within bounds prescribed by society, and it happens that we are moving towards a public-by-default, private-through-effort direction. The speed by which technology is altering privacy norms has given us neither the time nor the chance to renegotiate shifting lines between the public and private. The litany of concerns—from government surveillance to psychological implications of radical sharing—is long and daunting. Put against the immediate gratifications from clicking ‘I agree,’ distributed long-term costs never seemed more abstract. Why be bothered by Amazon tracking what you read and buy when the bargains of two-day-shipping and freebies seem like no-brainers?

Against this backdrop, the main contribution of Eggers’—alongside many others’—to the privacy debate does not reside in his having anything new to say about privacy. In fact, little is new. He and the others are merely asking that we take pause, to linger over what it means to surrender shreds of our personal life. They ask a question with no easy answer: What is gained and what is lost? Whatever that answer may be, it is hardly time yet to ‘get over it,’ as Zuckerberg would have us do. Not now, and probably not ever.

Contact Chi Ling Chan at chiling ‘at’

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Chi Ling, Chan ('15) is a junior majoring in Political Science and Symbolic Systems. On campus, she presently runs The Stanford Roundtable where she facilitates conversations on science, technology, society and more broadly, the human condition. In her free time, she writes. Chi Ling can be contacted at [email protected]