“The quality or state of being apart from company or observation”
When it comes to the current information and internet age we are living in, we all have the ability to put ourselves out there and create our own little sphere of influence on the internet. We log into Instagram or Facebook (or, funny enough, Meta?), post our photo and paint an image of ourselves for the world to see. Our profile can be set on “private” if we please, but many of us are under the impression that our corner of the internet is our spot to own regardless. Why put our profile on “private” when we can just block the profiles we feel uncomfortable with? If we have a friend that is not online, we think they are out of touch, old, and boring. We may even make the decision to avoid a potential friendship or relationship with someone if we cannot find them online. What does it mean if someone is existing without a modern trace, without voter records, without a publicly known address, and without employment history? Something must be wrong with them, right?
But, what if the issue is not with that friend, but with our definition of privacy?
Privacy is an ambiguous term that may have a definition we are all forced to follow, but it is really a concept that is out of reach and unknown. My definition of privacy at home is different than my definition of privacy at work. My mother may feel privacy extends to all places she exists in the world, whereas my father may feel privacy is contextual. The internet age and social media has turned any context we have had in the past on its head. Especially in older generations, there is a feeling that social media can invade our space and our bubble in a strange way. To quote my mother, “I don’t need anyone knowing where I am or who I know.”
I would vehemently disagree with her, of course. No one is forcing us to publicize every time we go to Applebee’s.
She does, of course, have a good point. There is an expectation that we will not be off the grid and that we will share everything we can about ourselves. Is this not an invasion of privacy? Is this social pressure to be on TikTok all day not an invasion of our ability to freely decide what we put out there? And, not for nothing, but hasn’t social media totally taken over our ability to decide our lines of privacy and sharing? This is the philosophical question around privacy that we all may want to consider now and again – how private are we if we are in a world where virtually anyone can (at the very least) figure out where we live and our phone number?
The fact of the matter is that our internet choices and our social media presence is not private at all. Data brokers, which are companies and data firms that collect and aggregate our internet data (which can be personal and sensitive) are not quite the hidden monsters we may believe them to be. One of these firms, Acxiom, brags it has, on average, 1,500 pieces of information on more than 200 million Americans. Every time we log into Facebook, look at handbags on The Real Real, or check our health records through an online portal, data brokers follow your mouse, analyze your habits, and sell the data to various organizations and, perhaps, the government.
We know the government and billion-dollar conglomerates love to use our data and our internet-based activities. In 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed through trusted journalists that the National Security Agency was engaged in a massive domestic data collection program concerning the most intimate details of an individual’s life and the patterns of movement and communication of millions. It cannot be known for sure where all this data is going or how it is used, but we are certainly being surveyed, and our Google searches are certainly not just between us and the keyboard. The joke about your FBI Agent looking over your shoulder and cheering you on (or cringing when you mess up) isn’t too far from reality after all.
This is not to alarm you.
This is your privacy we are talking about, of course, whatever that may mean. I cannot in good conscience tell you to unplug your computer and hide for the rest of your life. I certainly won’t be doing that. However, this begs the question- is it possible to be totally private, at least in terms of the Merriam Webster definition provided at the beginning of this piece, in the information age?
I would argue, no. This may be uncomfortable to digest. It is also an opportunity for you to take back your power a bit. Advocate and be on the side of whistleblowers that reveal privacy infringements. Lobby the government and push for your right to be private. Read through the Terms and Conditions page, despite it being boring (that is done on purpose, you know). You do not need to live in fear, and you can certainly have fun with Twitter. Just remember the internet is a very large room with open windows. You are not isolated. Privacy is ambiguous and I am not sure we can even define it anymore.