A lot of the prominent stories recently emanating from our world, and the wider world, are linked by the subject of Privacy. It runs like a vein through so many contemporary stories, that I wonder if people will look back on the years around the turn of this decade as a tipping point for privacy. Perhaps we’re about to go one of two ways – a future in which nothing is really private, or something a little more Orwellian where privacy is shut down, globally, off the back of Bush-administration style rhetoric about ‘national security’.
Sometimes, the privacy stories directly intersect with library stories (such as the controversy around the Library of Congress’s handling of the wikileaks saga), but even when they don’t, it’s all relevant. Privacy is about access to information, and we are the Information Professionals.
The big stories
Many of the biggest stories at the moment are privacy related. The phone-hacking scandal currently rocking the Murdoch empire, for example. Of course Wikileaks is the most obvious one – there are many levels of privacy involved here. People were doing or saying things they thought were private, which were recorded by third parties who in turn thought this would be kept private. Then along comes a whistle-blower who makes the information available to a website, who in turn make it available to the world. For the most part the information only has value because of some distinctly librarian-like intervention between the data being leaked, and we the public ingesting it. 300,000 files on a memory stick is pretty useless on its own – hours and hours of collating, sorting, curating and research, in this case by journalists, give the information the accessibility it needs to be communicable to a large audience. Information overload is also a factor here – absolutely incredible stories, scoops of the year in their own right at any other time, get down-graded because of their proximity to so many other high-interest pieces of information. We become immunised to scandal when we get too much of it at one time.
It is interesting to think how much revelatory material is currently waiting to be unearthed, once someone has done the research to make it viable for public release. It is interesting to wonder how diplomacy will work in the future, if everyone knows that everything they say may one day be read in the paper by you or I.
Recent events in Egypt have taken in Privacy related elements too. The Government wanted privacy; they didn’t want easy communication between the people and the outside world, regarding the week-long protests that have been happening in Cairo and elsewhere. So they turned off the internet.
Surely these two examples show the two ways this could go? Everyone knowing everything, or no one being allowed to communicate anything.
The logistics of leaking
As the excellent Guardian Week in Review podcast pointed out, it is very easy to breach privacy these days. Wikileaks gets hold of 300,000 files at a time – can you imagine trying to carry that many pieces of paper out of a building, at all, let alone covertly? You’d need a lorry parked outside, for a start. Electronic data transfer facilitates leaks – you send things across the ether, or you can save them onto a memory stick the size of your thumb.
Not only that but technology tends to become smaller as it gets more advanced, and so a: more discrete and b: more ubiquitous because you can fit it into more stuff. An absolutely extraordinary number of people own mobile phones – some estimates put the figure as high as 5 billion mobiles in circulation – and pretty much all of those being sold today have cameras and video cameras as standard now. This is technology which would have been super-spy territory a couple of decades ago – devices capable of recording anything, that can fit in your pocket, and that look like something else and give no indication they’re recording? Everyone can create the news now.
Not only that, but we have plenty of technology at our finger tips which allows pretty much instantaneous dissemination of whatever we have to share.
The smaller stories
Many privacy stories come about simply because people act differently if they don’t think they’re accountable for their actions. If they don’t think their private actions will become public, they don’t attempt to filter their behaviour. When they do become public, the people have to apologise and show contrition – as if it was only the fact that their actions came to light publicly that somehow enlightened them as to the fact those actions were wrong.
The MPs expenses scandal is an example of this – they were comfortable with what they were doing, until the private actions came under public scrutiny, and then they were all suddenly aware of their moral failings and very sorry. The recent departures of Keys and Gray from Sky’s football coverage is similar – they acted in a way they knew was inappropriate in the eyes of the public, only because they didn’t think those eyes would ever see those actions.
We all do this. I’m glad Keys and Grey are gone, they were buffoons. Their comments were indicative of their misogyny, and unpleasantly bullying. But who hasn’t said something privately that would get them into enormous trouble if it was made public? As a case in point, I played poker with some male friends on Friday night, and we spent much of the night satirising Gray and Keys, impersonating them and so on. But context is everything – if you were to see footage of our conversation with the context stripped away, it would be just six men sitting round a table drinking and making sexist remarks.
This is relevant to us and to libraries and to information, for many reasons. Particularly the way we use Search Engines. Because we use them, for the first part, thinking we are doing so in private. Would we use them differently if we knew our actions would become public? As the experience of the recent Yahoo! leak shows, I think we would. It’s not just that people use the internet to access the seedier side of human existence, it’s that our whole lives can be pieced together from the questions we ask of Yahoo!, Google and the rest. Our hopes, our fears, our indiscretions, our health, our finances, our plans – our identity. Google is keen not to be evil now, but the information it has on us already will be around forever. Forever! Who knows what the next generation of owners / CEOs will do with it all.
Facebook is much more openly evil, and plays around with your privacy all the time. We all know this, but as Bobbi Newman pointed out to me, a large percentage of its half-billion-plus users (that’s one in four internet users in the world) will not be fully aware of this or of its implications.
How would you behave if privacy didn’t exist? Most of us would behave differently, I think. Our private morality would be more closely aligned with our public morality. The tabloids who, happy in their own rank hypocrisy, crow about Gray’s ‘disgraceful’ sexist comments about a female referee whilst simultaneously trying to objectify her in the accompanying out-of-context pictures of her at a nightclub, would not find it so easy to preach about what they so clearly don’t practice themselves. But it occurs to me that if this IS a tipping point in privacy, then perhaps we’re already happily revealing everything about ourselves, it’s just that the information will be made public retrospectively.
So perhaps we should all start behaving as if privacy didn’t exist now, to save embarrassment later..? In any case, the role of the Information Professional will surely be of increasing importance, in providing guidance and education, as the stakes associated with digital literacy, information literacy, transliteracy, grow ever higher.
NB: Hilariously, since writing this piece this morning, and coming back to proof-read it and add the links this afternoon, I’ve since read a piece by Charlie Brooker in the Guardian this very day saying, in some cases, pretty much exactly the same thing – except more entertainingly… You can read his article here.