Different people will set the line between the private and the public in different places. Different societies will as well. As Evgeny Morozov writes in an excellent essay in the new issue of Technology Review, the growing ability of corporations, governments, and individuals to use computers to collect and analyze data on personal behavior has for many years now created social pressure to move the line ever more toward the public, squeezing the realm of the private. If some public good can be attributed to, or even anticipated from, an expansion in the collection of personal data — an increase in efficiency or safety, say — it becomes difficult to argue against that expansion. Privacy advocates become marginalized, as they attempt to defend an abstract good against a practical and measurable one.
As the trend continues, the outputs of data-analysis programs begin to shape public policy. What’s been termed “algorithmic regulation” takes the place of public debate. Policy decisions, and even personal ones, start to be automated, and the individual begins to be disenfranchised. Morozov quotes from a perceptive 1985 lecture by Spiros Simitis: “Where privacy is dismantled, both the chance for personal assessment of the political … process and the opportunity to develop and maintain a particular style of life fade.” The pursuit of transparency, paradoxically, ends up making society’s workings more opaque to its citizens. Comments Morozov:
In case after case, Simitis argued, we stood to lose. Instead of getting more context for decisions, we would get less; instead of seeing the logic driving our bureaucratic systems and making that logic more accurate and less Kafkaesque, we would get more confusion because decision making was becoming automated and no one knew how exactly the algorithms worked. We would perceive a murkier picture of what makes our social institutions work; despite the promise of greater personalization and empowerment, the interactive systems would provide only an illusion of more participation. As a result, “interactive systems … suggest individual activity where in fact no more than stereotyped reactions occur.”
Simitis offered a particularly prescient assessment of the kind of polity that would ultimately emerge from this trend:
Habits, activities, and preferences are compiled, registered, and retrieved to facilitate better adjustment, not to improve the individual’s capacity to act and to decide. Whatever the original incentive for computerization may have been, processing increasingly appears as the ideal means to adapt an individual to a predetermined, standardized behavior that aims at the highest possible degree of compliance with the model patient, consumer, taxpayer, employee, or citizen.
Morozov goes on to explore the insidious effects of what he terms “the invisible barbed wire of big data,” and he argues, compellingly, that those effects can be tempered only through informed political debate, not through technological fixes.
I have only one quibble with Morozov’s argument. He declares that “privacy is not an end in itself” but rather “a means of achieving a certain ideal of democratic politics.” That strikes me as an overstatement. In claiming that the private can only be justified by its public benefits, Morozov displays the sensibility that he criticizes. I agree wholeheartedly that privacy is a means to a social end — to an ideal of democratic politics — but I think it is also an end in itself, or, to be more precise, it is a means to important personal as well as public ends. A sense of privacy is essential to the exploration and formation of the self, just as it’s essential to civic participation and political debate.
Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy.