the lie of privacy

Re: this New York Times article and this blog entry

It’s like people don’t understand the nature of information or human nature.

People who are upset when they find out they have been mentioned in someone’s blog, people who ask not to be blogged about, people who censor themselves around people they know blog… they are upset by the lie of privacy.

The lie of privacy: There is no such thing as privacy.

Before there were blogs, people still talked about their lives and their friends and family and the people they met and the things they did … blogging did not invent this phenomenon. If you do something publicly, if you say something and are not the only one to hear it, if you go someplace or behave some way or whatever… if it is not just you and six solid, sound-proof walls, then someone else knows about it. And if someone else knows about it, they’re going to tell someone. Maybe a lot of someones. A secret is something you tell someone else, and we’re not just talking about secrets here, we’re talking about everyday events and experiences. We’re talking about things overheard on mobile phone conversations or at bars, we’re talking about all the details of our latest hook-up or break-up, and because we’re talking about it, it’s not private.

Especially in this information age where most street corners, most businesses, inside and out and in the bathrooms have cameras and recording devices to monitor everything, there is no such thing as privacy. When someone from up to a couple of miles away with a laser-based listening device and a line of sight to any outside surface of a building you’re in can hear everything going on inside, when people with IR and EMI-based systems can literally see through walls, there is no such thing as privacy. If someone WANTS to find something out, they can, no matter how well you hide it. And don’t even pretend to think anything you do online is private. Every packet of information that finds its way to your computer, whether part of an email or a blog or a pornographic image has bounced of at least half a dozen computers before even getting to your ISP, and it left your computer’s ID at every stop.

This isn’t about becoming paranoid – that doesn’t do you much good. This is about realizing that privacy is and has always been a lie. Without fancy equipment or server logs or anything else, people have always been able to find out what they wanted to know about you by asking the people who know you, who saw you, who heard about you from the people who were there or who you told about it, thinking they wouldn’t spread the information. If you ever thought you were keeping a secret from someone, you either weren’t at all, or they never cared to know.


This isn’t just about the lie of privacy. This is about the people who get upset when they glimpse that privacy is a lie. Because if it upsets you that other people know what you’ve been doing or saying, or about the places you’ve been going or who you’ve been going there with, the problem isn’t that people are finding out, it’s that you don’t think you should have been doing or saying or going or being with. You are upset with your own actions. You are ashamed or embarrassed of your own behavior.

If you believed that what you’d done was acceptable and reasonable, you would be either apathetic or proud when other people found out about it, not outraged or worried. If you made a mistake, the retelling of it is going to come across that way and as long as you are aware and comfortable with the fact that you are a human being and sometimes make mistakes, what is there to be upset or embarrassed about?

I recently accidentally walked into the women’s restroom at a restaruant, but I noticed it right away and went to the correct restroom. Some people would think that was something to be embarrassed about, but it seems like a simple mistake to me, so it didn’t occurr to me to even mention it here until just now when trying to think of mistakes I’d recently made that might be considered embarrassing.

So if people live by their own sense of how they should live and only do things that they themselves accept as reasonable, if people accept themselves as human and fallible, what is the problem with other people speaking or writing or publishing things about them?

And if people don’t live by their own sense of what is right, maybe getting upset seeing the things they don’t even like about themselves made public will drive them to lead their lives differently (or conversely, to change their beliefs about what one ought to do). Maybe becoming embarrassed when people post about their making mistakes will lead people to accept themselves as fallible humans beings.

Maybe I’m dreaming.


In the article they say rightly that some people blog specifically for the attention they receive. Why do I blog? Perhaps to some extent for the attention, but more and more it seems to be part of an effort some people have trouble accepting. That is, I blog about everything that’s going on with me so I don’t have to tell the same stories again and again and again. I blog so that everyone who cares about me, my family and friends and the hundreds of strangers who keep coming back every day, knows what’s been going on with me and don’t have to ask. When I talk to someone on the phone or in IM or in person (occassionally) and they ask me what’s been going on, I don’t even bother saying the things I’ve already posted – I only bother to explain the things I haven’t already posted about, most of the time.

And I’ve found that I’ve begun to judge people’s opinions of me by this. There are people who I know are online all the time, but when they talk to me they have no idea what’s been going on in my life and sometimes have forgotten than I even have a blog. I seem automatically to feel that these people don’t consider me worth their time or energy. That they don’t really want to know how I am or what I’ve been up to, or they’d read FYTH at least occassionally. There are other people who seem to know what I’ve posted almost before I’ve posted it, or who call me up to comment on something I’d posted that day, or who ask me questions in reference to things I’d forgotten I’d posted about already… and these people I seem automatically to beleive care about me, are interested in me and my well-being on a daily basis.

The first group of people I tend to treat the same way; like they aren’t worth more than a passing effort, that I don’t care whether they are my friends or not. The second group I tend to value very highly, I treat them with respect and care and I do what I can to keep as in touch with their goings-on as they do in mine. And the third group (no, I didn’t mention them yet) aren’t ‘online people’, so the fact that they don’t read my blog doesn’t bother me at all. I treat them as though my blog didn’t exist because for them it doesn’t.

Regardless, I treat everyone knowing full well that there is no such thing as privacy, that if people want to know something about me they’ll find it out, and I try to remain as open and honest as possible. In everyday conversations I don’t just go blurting out things I know certain groups are sensitive to, but if someone asks, I don’t hesitate to answer. I do whatever I can to live my life the way I believe it ought to be lived, and do not worry about what other people may say about me, online or behind my back or wherever else.

(*I was thinking today about how I’d live my life and what I’d like to do if I found a gold mine or won the lottery or some other way came by a large sum of money. I immediately thought I’d live my life as I was now, and a moment later thought ‘except I’d pay off my debt and stay out of debt’. The small modifications I could find in my lifestyle were small things like talking to Sara more or buying more art supplies. It only now occurrs to me that I might use the money to physically visit Sara… but regardless, I’m not dreaming of big houses and fast cars and shiny boats. I’m living my life very close to my dream.*)

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