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Journal ShieldW0lf's Journal: Privacy and Secrecy 9

These two concepts are presented as being synonymous in popular discussion. A "You can't have one without the other." kind of thing.

This concerns me greatly.

I could write at great length about the threat secrecy poses to human culture, and have before, but that's not what I'm going to do right now.

I've had conversations in the past where I claimed people never had privacy in the first place, that between the government and the schools and the banks and credit card companies and whatnot, their movements and activities have been monitored since the day they were born.

But this was never precisely right. Because privacy doesn't require secrecy. That is what I want to talk about.

First, a couple of illustrations:

When you go to the bathroom, it's not a secret what you're going in there for. We know you're going in there to release waste. You know that we know. But we would generally agree that this gives you privacy.

When you live with roommates, and you take your special someone to your room and hang a tie on the door, we know what you're in there for. You know that we know. But you still feel a sense of privacy, and you still do what you went in there to do.

So. What makes these situations private, when they're not even vaguely secret?

The lack of a requirement to interact.

It's a matter of social decorum. Good manners.

At the end of the day, I don't really care that you know I took a dump. What I care about is that I don't have to carry on a conversation about it. I don't even want to have the "conversation of the eyes". I want to forget, for a moment, that you exist.

I don't think I'm exceptional in this regard.

So, clearly, you can have privacy without secrecy.

Let's examine something a little more pervasive.

Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the last 15 years, you're probably familiar with the "Reality TV" concept.

These people are living in a fishbowl. They have no secrets, and they know it.

But you can clearly see that, despite this, they will seek out a space where they are physically alone so they can have some privacy. And you can clearly see them relax, because their need for privacy has been fulfilled.

Why? There are likely more people observing them that ever before... how can they possibly feel like they have privacy?

The answer is, they don't need to react to you. They don't need to respond to things you say. That automatic reflex we have to decipher what your eyes are saying never kicks in. That is what they really crave.

So. One more illustration. Not even anecdotal. Could not tell you when or where I heard this, but here goes:

The story is, there is an Asian culture where everyone is packed in so tightly, and their building construction affords them no secrecy because their walls are so thin that a man walking past your house can see and hear right through your rice paper walls.

Nevertheless, these people successfully find the privacy they need. Because they do not react to things that are none of their business. They know their place.

There is a lesson here for us.

We are grappling with a real problem in our civilization. We have forged tools with the power to extend our senses further than our great grandparents could have ever dreamed. But we have not yet demonstrated the maturity to handle it.

The result of this is that there is a small class of people who have access to vast amounts of information about everyone, and a large class of people who have very little access and what access they have has been carefully chosen to control their opinions.

The small class of people and the large class of people are both fighting to preserve this state of affairs. The large class are defending the "right to secrecy" because they feel they are fighting to protect their privacy from their ill mannered fellows. The small class are defending the right to secrecy because they have an unfair advantage over their fellows and they wish to preserve that state of affairs.

Simultaneously, you have people who are fighting for "transparency", because they recognize the unfair advantage that is held by a group that seeks to control them, and they wish that unfair advantage erased.

In this way, we are turned against ourselves by those who would rule us.

I've argued this point exhaustively in online forums under my standard pseudonym, and have been jeered at, and invited to publish my real name, address and banking information.

This is what we're up against. I've got skeletons in my closet, same as everyone. I'm flawed, but I'm confident I'm no more flawed than any of you. If the veils of secrecy came crashing down for one and all, I'm confident that it would be impossible for anyone to attack my character and reputation without being seen for a gross hypocrite.

But, to go first is to allow hypocrites to destroy you, and to fail in your attempt to address the problem.

It's a difficult problem. I'm not sure how to get from where we are to where I believe we need to be. I see it as a real possibility that we will destroy our own potential to grow beyond the limitations of our fragile flesh rather than develop the maturity to cope with this situation.

However, I think that creating a sense of the distinction between privacy and secrecy is an essential step towards having a dialog that will lead us there.

Thank you for reading.

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Privacy and Secrecy

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  • It makes me feel better knowing there are smart, tech-savvy people saying what you're saying.

    I get a little disheartened when I hear otherwise informed people say, "It's the internet age. You don't have any privacy, so just get over it". They just don't seem to have any awareness of the role that privacy, agency and basic human liberty have played in getting us to a point where we can have such powerful technology.

    If there had been ubiquitous surveillance thirty years ago, we might not even have an Intern

    • Just to make it clear, I'm in favor of omnipresent surveillance. I'm opposed to the surveillance being restricted to the few. I believe the capacity for each of us to see what has happened and is happening anywhere on the Earth is magnificent, and that is what I fear we will lose. I hope we can develop the decorum that we will need to allow the human race to blossom into creatures who spend their entire lives taking it for granted that they can see anything and everything, and still have privacy despite

      • There's a difference between surveillance and transparency.

        People have a basic, animal need to be left alone sometimes. If there is "omnipresent surveillance", and you can't possibly know who's watching, how can you ever say "no"?

        I don't think "decorum" is something that is decided democratically. It is almost imposed on us by the powerful, and that means that it will be beneficial to a few and less so to everyone else.

        But again, it's good that smart people like you are talking about this.

        • That's the point. You don't need for people not to be able to see to feel private. You just need to not be forced to acknowledge them. As illustrated by the people going to the bathroom, the people hanging the tie on the door, the reality television stars finding privacy while on camera and the Asian who finds privacy behind a translucent sheet of paper. When push comes to shove, it doesn't matter that they can see, as long as you don't have to acknowledge them.

          I consider the current situation where we'

          • . You don't need for people not to be able to see to feel private.

            No, you need for people to be not seen.

            The act of watching, when it is not wanted, is a transgression against the individual. Now, you may say we've moved into a "post-individual" age, where only the collective matters, but I'm pretty sure that's not what people want. There is a basic human dignity that is violated by unwanted surveillance on people who are not suspected of crime. It's why the framers of the US Constitution made a big deal

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