Skip to content →

Shadows & Light: Privacy in the Panopticon


Before the turn of the millennium, Scott McNealy declared privacy dead:

The chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems said Monday that consumer privacy issues are a “red herring.”

“You have zero privacy anyway,” Scott McNealy told a group of reporters and analysts Monday night at an event to launch his company’s new Jini technology.

“Get over it.”

McNealy’s comments came only hours after competitor Intel (INTC) reversed course under pressure and disabled identification features in its forthcoming Pentium III chip.

At one time, privacy was a function of a general laziness and the unlinked quality of information. While there may have been lots of publicly available information about a person, it was rather difficult to track down and assemble. We’ve developed a whole mythology around the kind of person who can root out the details about a person and put the pieces together into a picture that makes some kind of sense.


There was a kind of power in the invisibility we once had. Oddly, it was a kind of anonymity that was derived from the density of the urban environment. The city was a place you could go to get lost, to start over, to create a new identity. That’s why it took a detective to find the traces and clues that filled out the picture of a person. Today, that kind of invisibility has mostly vanished. If I want to know something about Sergey Brin, I can use any number of services that will scour the Network looking of publicly available information, and then I can pay for information that’s more obscure or privately held. Shoe leather is no longer a requirement.

Just as there’s a kind of ‘security through obscurity,’ there was a kind of privacy through obscurity. The methods by which information about a person used to be stored were enshrouded in shadow, even darkness. One piece of information wasn’t linked to the next. The trail was obscured, you had to stumble through the darkness to get from one piece of information to the next. Now information is linked into a web– it’s created, searched, and collated. In the UK, surveillance cameras are used to create a visual real-time mesh of video that can track you through your day. You are being recorded, it’s just a question of whether anyone is currently looking at the data or not.

…under a law enacted in 2000 to regulate surveillance powers, it is legal for localities to follow residents secretly. Local governments regularly use these surveillance powers — which they “self-authorize,? without oversight from judges or law enforcement officers — to investigate malfeasance like illegally dumping industrial waste, loan-sharking and falsely claiming welfare benefits.

The private moment, that little space between this and that, the in-between time when no one is looking— this invisible space is growing smaller and smaller, the more connected we become. Privacy through obscurity is no longer a dependable strategy. The things that were hidden in plain sight, are now easily found.

There is some data that remains private. Our medical records and financial records are two examples of personal data that is actively encrypted and kept private. Generally a court order is required to pry open these vaults of information. In some sense, that’s the new definition of privacy. It’s data that can be accessed by the individual, the data custodian, and, by court order, the government. In addition, should this data inadvertently leak out from the data custodian, the individual has a well-established legal recourse against the custodian.

In order for the private to remain truly secret, it would need to be unconnected. As the connections between us are made visible by our electronically networked environment, we begin to see that we have always inhabited networks of one kind or another. To be unconnected to all networks is to no longer be among the living. The private is something that we are prohibited from sharing based on a social or legal contract. Viewed as a system, the private requires more energy to maintain its contracts regarding the non-sharing of information. Linking private personal data among private systems of record while still honoring the non-sharing contract takes even more energy. The network itself doesn’t distinguish between private and public information packets.

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

And just as we can deduce the nature of hidden facts based on the dog who didn’t bark in the night, the private can often be deduced by correlating public gestures/connections to and through the locus of personal identity. But privacy isn’t dead, it’s just as it always was– an agreement among a group of people to enact useful boundaries on the sharing of information.

Published in culture identity network politics real time web social graph tribes