Privacy SOS

On privacy-shaming and the right to choose

Outrage over the government’s secret, massive, and suspicionless spying operations is a bit silly if you post pictures of your children on Facebook, or status updates about your political opinions and dining habits on Twitter.

That’s essentially the fatuous, dangerous and ignorant argument Sasha Weiss makes in a piece for The New Yorker called “We are all pole dancing on the internet.”

Using Edward Snowden’s ex-girlfriend’s internet postings as a foil, Weiss makes the same mistake that untold numbers of elected officials, pundits and ordinary people have made time and again as they seek alternatively to provide political cover for, declaw opposition against, or brush off concerns about government spying gone wild. The mistake is really very simple, and yet somehow the heart of the matter continues to elude far too many otherwise intelligent people.

The mistake is a failure to understand what privacy is really about. Let me clear it up:

Privacy is about control over information, not about secrecy. It is about having the right to define what is exposed and what is concealed. Privacy is about choice.

We can either log on to Twitter and post stream of conscience remarks about political quarrels all day (guilty as charged), or we can choose to keep our political ideas to ourselves. Or, rather, we should be able to. The recent revelations in the Guardian newspaper show that, in fact, we cannot control our own information: we do not have a choice. The government has decided for us, in secret, how much privacy and dignity we are able to maintain.

Weiss’ misleading column, which reads like a 2013 version of the same silliness we heard back in 2006 when that other NSA spying scandal broke, implies that we are utterly conflicted about our privacy. Her argument goes something like this:

Snowden’s former girlfriend likes to take pictures of herself and post them on the internet, so isn’t it totally bizarre that her boyfriend blew the whistle on the big spy factory? And more important, doesn’t our society-wide obsession with exposing ourselves on the internet render impotent our outrage over the NSA spying revelations?

This is how Weiss puts it [emphasis mine]: 

How did an outward person like [Snowden’s girlfriend] manage to live with such a reticent guy as Snowden, who left limited traces online, whose next-door neighbor in Hawaii said that Snowden barely greeted him, and whose high-school principal had no recollection of his existence? The seeming gap between their temperaments mirrors the general disconnect between the anger over the N.S.A.’s surveillance and the atmosphere of exhibitionism that prevails on the Internet. We already exist in a society where much of what we do is recorded—it’s just that people often record themselves.

To be fair to Weiss, wedged in the middle of her frustrating column is an acknowledgement of the choice issue. But then she steamrolls over it:

There’s a difference, of course, between voluntarily posting a photo of yourself doing a complicated yoga pose on a chair and involuntarily committing your e-mails to a massive government server. But the fact that we are increasingly prepared to fling out details of our lives begs the question of what, exactly, we fear when we rage about a loss of privacy. Most of us react with horror to the idea that our online messages are in the hands of the government—in the sense of being collected in a massive stream of data and analyzed for suspicious patterns—but have no problem posting a photo of our kids, our wedding, or our lunch on Facebook or Instagram.

“What, exactly, we fear when we rage about a loss of privacy” is nothing other than the loss of control over our own lives to an unaccountable government that has chosen for us — again, in secret. It has stripped us of the ability to decide what information we want to disclose, and to whom. Emailing a photograph of ourselves to our lovers (assuming that only our lover sees it) may in fact be tantamount to exposing it to hundreds of thousands of people, and we might never know it. With good reason, this violation of our right to choose how to control information about ourselves bothers Americans in the extreme.

Furthermore, it simply isn’t true to assert that “most of us…have no problem posting a photo of our kids…on Facebook.” I know lots of people who consciously avoid doing so. Unfortunately for them, this choice is neutered if the NSA sucks up that very same data from their private Flickr or Gmail account.

The pièce de résistance is Weiss' final sentence, however, where she wraps up her arguments into a little, vacuous bow, conveying a sentiment that drives me absolutely up the wall: ‘Privacy is dead. Get over it.’

[T]he Web increasingly seems like a good-natured auditorium filled with people wanting to be amused. Among other consequences of the developing N.S.A. story, maybe Snowden’s revelations will clarify something that is hard to grasp: the Internet is not just a place of freedom and friendly applause for pole-dancing superheroes.

Weiss is right to say that the internet as it exists today is far from a “place of freedom.” But she’s wrong to leave the problem festering there at the end of a piece that calls into question whether we citizens are really serious about our privacy. You get the feeling that she thinks we don't deserve any.

That's a profoundly disturbing suggestion, and it eerily echoes what the most powerful men in the government have been intimating since Edward Snowden blew the whistle.

As my colleague Jay Stanley eloquently articulated, our society — like the internet — can actually be whatever we decide to make of it. It shouldn't be up to General Keith Alexander or Barack Obama to decide how much privacy we get, or under what circumstances.

Stanley writes:

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper insists that “discussing programs like this publicly will have an impact on the behavior of our adversaries.” But public discussion of this kind of program is what it means to live in an open democratic society. So national security officials have decided that the increased threat of terrorism that would come from upholding the democratic process is so great that it is worth sacrificing that democratic process? First of all, count me skeptical. Second, after all this country has sacrificed in its history to defend democracy, who are these officials to make the judgment that we ought to sacrifice some of that democracy?

Just like privacy revolves around our right to choose whether or not we want to disclose or to withhold, democracy revolves around our right to choose where to set limits upon the power of the state.

The US national security establishment’s profound arrogance on this question is upsetting in the extreme, and so is Weiss’, who presumes that “fling[ing] out details of our lives” is tantamount to giving up control over them. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Just ask anyone with a password protected email account and a Tumblr.

If you look at my Twitter timeline, you might think that I tell the world everything there is to know about what I think and do. But that’s simply false. I choose what to disclose on Twitter, and I would very much like to have a choice about who can read my emails or obtain lists of everyone I call, as well. 

So yes, we can post pictures of ourselves pole dancing and still be outraged about government spying. There’s nothing contradictory or even particularly noteworthy about it.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.