In the wake of Google’s revelation last week of a concerted, sophisticated cyber attack on many corporate networks, including its own Gmail service, Eric Schmidt’s recent comments about privacy become even more troubling. As you’ll recall, in a December 3 CNBC interview, Schmidt said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. But if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines – including Google – do retain this information for some time and it’s important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities.”
For a public figure to say “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” is, at the most practical of levels, incredibly rash. You’re essentially extending an open invitation to reporters to publish anything about your life that they can uncover. (Ask Gary Hart.) The statement also paints Schmidt as a hypocrite. In 2005, he threw a legendary hissy fit when CNET’s Elinor Mills, in an article about privacy, published some details about his residence, his finances, and his politics that she had uncovered through Google searches. Google infamously cut off all contact with CNET for a couple of months. Schmidt didn’t seem so casual about the value of privacy when his own was at stake.
The China-based cyber attack, which apparently came to Google’s attention just a few days after the CNBC interview, makes Schmidt’s remarks about privacy and deferring to “the authorities” seem not just foolhardy but reprehensible. When the news reached Schmidt that some Gmail accounts had been compromised, perhaps endangering Chinese dissidents, did he shrug his shoulders and say, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”? Did he say that Gmail customers need to understand that sometimes “the authorities” will have access to their messages? Judging by Google’s reaction to the attack, it takes the privacy of its own networks extremely seriously – as well it should. The next time Schmidt is asked about privacy, he should remember that.
Of course, Schmidt isn’t the first Silicon Valley CEO to make cavalier comments about privacy. It began back in 1999 when Schmidt’s onetime boss, Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, proclaimed, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” Just this month, the idea was repeated by the web’s most amusing philosopher-king, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In an on-stage interview, Zuckerberg defended his company’s recent decision to roll back privacy protections on its site by arguing that the desire for privacy was evaporating as a “social norm.” Facebook, said Zuckerberg, was merely responding to that putative shift.
Reading through these wealthy, powerful people’s glib statements on privacy, one begins to suspect that what they’re really talking about is other people’s privacy, not their own. If you exist within a personal Green Zone of private jets, fenced off hideaways, and firewalls maintained by the country’s best law firms and PR agencies, it’s hardly a surprise that you’d eventually come to see privacy more as a privilege than a right. And if your company happens to make its money by mining personal data, well, that’s all the more reason to convince yourself that other people’s privacy may not be so important.
There’s a deeper danger here. The continuing denigration of privacy may begin to warp our understanding of what “privacy” really means. As Bruce Schneier has written, privacy is not just a screen we hide behind when we do something naughty or embarrassing; privacy is “intrinsic to the concept of liberty”:
For if we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness. We become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that – either now or in the uncertain future – patterns we leave behind will be brought back to implicate us, by whatever authority has now become focused upon our once-private and innocent acts. We lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.
Privacy is not only essential to life and liberty; it’s essential to the pursuit of happiness, in the broadest and deepest sense of that phrase. It’s essential, as Schneier implies, to the development of individuality, of unique personality. We human beings are not just social creatures; we’re also private creatures. What we don’t share is as important as what we do share. The way that we choose to define the boundary between our public self and our private self will vary greatly from person to person, which is exactly why it’s so important to be ever vigilant in defending everyone’s ability and power to set that boundary as he or she sees fit. Today, online services and databases play increasingly important roles in our public and our private lives – and in the way we choose to distinguish between them. Many of those services and databases are under corporate control, operated for profit by companies like Google and Facebook. If those companies can’t be trusted to respect and defend the privacy rights of their users, they should be spurned.
Privacy is the skin of the self. Strip it away, and in no time desiccation sets in.