Stop this ‘privacy invasion’ whinging

By Greg Stevens on June 20th, 2012

There’s something I need to get off my chest. This overwhelming mass of crying and whinging about “invasion of privacy” is complete and utter rubbish.

Don’t get me wrong: privacy is important. The Government should not be allowed to read my emails or listen to my phone calls without a warrant. They should not be able to put spy cameras inside my home.

They should not be able to randomly stop me, or any other person, on the street and strip-search me without probable cause. These are clear-cut cases where people have a right to privacy that should not be breached.

But the majority of things that I hear people complain about as “invasions of privacy” are not, and I think it’s time we grew up a little. Here’s a list of the three worst offenders.

It’s not private when you buy something. I know that plenty of online stores make elaborate promises about privacy and not selling their customer lists. But I think that ultimately this is wrong-headed, because the entire idea that a commercial interaction is “private” fails the common-sense test.

If you go up to a stranger on the street and tell them something, you do not have an expectation of privacy for that information. I recently served as a juror on a civil case in the state of Texas, where I reside. In that case, a woman claimed that a friend of hers violated her privacy by disclosing her HIV status to a third party.

The friend’s defence was to say that the woman had already announced her HIV status to a room full of strangers on a separate occasion, and therefore demonstrated that she did not consider the information private. In part on based on that testimony, the defendant won the case.

When you buy something from a store, you are interacting with a stranger. The store is not your friend. That clerk is not your confidante. There is no common-sense reason to think that your interaction with the store is “private” in any way. It is not a personal communication with a friend: it is more like standing on a chair and announcing your purchase interests to a room full of strangers.

People cry “invasion of privacy” when they hear about the possibility that Google could track their searches or Amazon could save or sell information about their purchasing habits. They are wrong: it is not an invasion of privacy. I don’t care if Amazon displays a list of my purchases on a billboard on Hollywood Boulevard: it’s not an invasion of privacy because buying something from a company is inherently not a private act.

I know the laws are ambiguous and evolving on this point, and lawyers frankly don’t know what to make of the issue of privacy in the current internet era. But I am making a common-sense argument.

You are not buddies with Amazon. Your interaction with Google is not a personal communication between you and them. It is interaction with a stranger: any information you give up, you are giving up voluntarily. So you have given up your expectation of privacy.

It’s not private when you can see it from space. Recently there has been some hubbub in the press about the aerial pictures that Apple and Google have been taking in order to create high-resolution three-dimensional maps. People complain because clear and recognizable images of individuals can be seen doing things such as sunbathing nude in their back yards and entering or leaving sex shops.

First of all, if you are leaving a sex shop, then you are in public anyway so you should have no expectation of privacy. But this juvenile complaint is a perfect example of how people cry “privacy” when all they really mean is that they are embarrassed.

If someone takes a photo of you leaving a sex shop, whether that photo is taken from the air or from across the street, it’s not an invasion of your privacy. Walking on the street is a public act: the fact that you didn’t think you would get caught doesn’t make it any less public.

The issue of a person sunbathing in a fenced-off yard is a little more ambiguous. Most of our privacy laws are rooted in the values and traditions that were established centuries ago. There was a time when all you needed to do in order to be hidden from the world was put a fence around your yard.

But the world has changed. Technology has changed. It’s time for us to re-think the “common sense” about what it takes for something to be private, in light of the new technological age that we live in.

If you live in a house with three walls, and one blank spot that allows the inside of your house to be visible to anyone walking by  on the street, then do you rationally have an expectation that the inside of your house is private? Most people would agree not.

But we live in the space age now. We live in a world with satellites and airplanes. We live in a world where politicians and corporations are talking about colonies on the moon. How can it possibly make sense, in this day and age, to think that an enclosure without a roof is private?

Admittedly, there are gray areas. If I can use a high-tech amplification device to hear sounds in your house, does that mean that your conversations in your house are inherently not private? I won’t pretend that I have an answer to every situation, and I think our society’s collective answer to such questions will evolve over time.

But I do know that if we live in a society where we want the convenience of Google Maps, where we have GPS and continual awareness of the fact that the ground can be seen from space – and I think we do want those things – it’s positively reactionary to cling to the idea that four walls and no roof is sufficient to make a place “private.”

Finally, one more case that I know will be controversial.

The shape of your naked body isn’t private. Let’s back up for a moment and think about why privacy is important. Most people argue against wiretapping and random strip-searches because they are afraid of abuses by the Government. When they can read your private emails, then they can abuse the knowledge that  they might gain.

Maybe you are expressing political opinions unfavorable to the party currently in power. Maybe you are planning on buying a foreign car. Whatever it is, there is the fear that the Government might discover something about you that they can use against you.

When you walk through some kind of screening machine at an airport that uses x-ray technology to produce a picture of the outline of your body, what can they learn that they might use against you? The shape of your body doesn’t give them information about your beliefs or intentions.

It’s not a communication, like and email or a phone call. It’s not an action, like attendance at a political rally. What, exactly, do you think the Government might do with that  information to “abuse” it?

This is a case where we have adolescent insecurity and medieval puritanism hiding behind the “privacy” banner. Frankly, it is demeaning to real privacy concerns – concerns over wiretapping, for example, or unwarranted search – to group them together with “taking a picture of the outline of a naked body.”

There is nothing inherently private about the shape of your body, unless you are afraid that the Government will take note of your intimate measurements and save them to a secret file.

The topic of privacy is an important one, but it’s equally important to reduce the noise associated with the term. Until we focus on what really matters about privacy, people will continue to get freaked out by these side-show non-issues, and any deeper problems will never get fixed.