The Death of Privacy – Sunday column, December 26, 2010
It was 1970, and Michel Blanchard was gleefully describing new opportunities in the oncoming Age of Information. Information, he cried, would be accessible to everyone, everywhere, all the time! The isolation of the Acadian villages would end! Acadians would be able to link up by means of small transmitters, broadcasting de l’église a l’église a l’église – from steeple to steeple to steeple, all across the region! Fantastique!
“Michel,” I said, “that’s great, but aren’t you at all concerned about privacy?”
“Privacy?” he cried. “Privacy? What d’hell is that? I’m an Acadian, me, I don’t know nothin’ about privacy!”
At the time I hadn’t lived in an Acadian community, but I soon moved into one. Michel was absolutely right. Acadians tend to be gregarious, voluble, shrewd and inquisitive. Privacy is not a big feature of Acadian life. But – and this is the interesting thing – neither is shame. Among the great Acadian values are truth and tolerance. The neighbours want to know what’s going on – but they are more likely to be amused than outraged.
All of which made me re-think privacy myself. What are we hiding, and why? What are we all so embarrassed about? Yes, there may be information out there that shows you to be venal, lustful, greedy, inconsiderate, dishonest, vulgar and vengeful. That’s because – at times – you have actually been venal, lustful, greedy and so on. So have I. So have the senator, the judge, the bishop and the play-school teacher. So what? Welcome to the human race, which is also capable of courage, devotion, generosity and self-sacrifice. This is the stuff that makes people endlessly fascinating.
The Acadian attitude is one of acceptance and forgiveness, as befits a people who have lived in one another’s pockets for 400 years. And – here’s the interesting thing – once you accept your own appalling faults and failures, your need for privacy largely evaporates. You have no mask to be shattered. You are who you are. As a wise old Acadian skipper once said to me, “You do the best you can. What more can you do?”
Acadians may thus be uniquely well-adapted to the 21st century, when privacy is melting away like snow in April. As Michel Blanchard predicted, we’re all wired together, 24/7. Cameras are in the sky, in the mall ceiling, in the parking lot, in our phones. Data-minng robots burrow through mountains of information on the web, assembling a digital you – address, phone, academic record, credit rating, VISA purchases. Look: this guy works out in the gym and gets Penthouse TV on his Blackberry. Sell his email to Viagra.
Privacy? What d’hell is that?
Is privacy even possible today? And does anyone care, particularly anyone under 35? Look at the self-exposure on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter. Maybe the best defence is the Acadian gambit: you can’t expose me, I’m already exposed.
But even as individual privacy evaporates, institutions guard their own information. No peeking inside governments; that’s cabinet confidentiality or national security. Corporate workings are off limits; that’s proprietary information or trade secrets. Big Brother has jealously protected his own secrets.
WikiLeaks publishes information provided by whistle-blowers. Deadly corruption in Kenya. A pending bank insolvency. The “collected secret bibles” of Scientology. Videos of civilian deaths in Afghanistan. The whistle-blowers could have nabbed the information illegally, but WikiLeaks has almost certainly committed no crime by publishing it. Nevertheless, Big Brother is furious. The German police raid WikiLeaks offices. The US government pressures credit card companies to block donations. The Thai and Chinese governments close off access to their sites. Senator Lieberman leans on Amazon to cut its links with WikiLeaks.
But nothing works. WikiLeaks is a digital guerrilla movement. It’s everywhere and nowhere. Shut down one site, and a dozen “mirror sites” spring up. Close off VISA payments, and WikiLeaks takes its business elsewhere. A helpless Hilary Clinton fumes that the release of undiplomatic cables by US diplomats is “is not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests, it is an attack on the international community."
Cue the sound of raucous laughter. Sorry, Ms. Secretary, you’ve just learned that you, too, are an Acadian. Get used to it. Privacy? What d’hell is that?
— 30 —