On Anonymity

At the end of an excellent interview/bio-piece in Rolling Stone (excerpts only), Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G, aka Borat) makes the following remark:

“I think that essentially I’m a private person, and to reconcile that with being famous is a hard thing. So I’ve been trying to have my cake and eat it, too – to have my characters be famous yet still live a normal life where I’m not trapped by fame and recognizability.”

This is a good jumping-off point for something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Two points are converging:

  1. Fame has long been a good way to destroy one’s privacy
  2. The last several years have seen the shrinking of the private sphere for everyone

On point 2., it actually tends at the margins to increase 1. – see Michael Richards’ racist rant of the other week, numerous celebrities’ sex tapes, etc. But there’s also the untold hours of CCTV footage, to say nothing of the information on our online lives that Google et al. are constantly gathering.

Borat is a way out – a highly visible, totally outrageous self that aspires to a lack of privacy, and takes (often unwilling, as the hotel clerk who unwittingly appeared in the film) others along for the ride. It’s a way of hiding in plain sight – and for someone who’s famous, that’s often the only way to do it.

But what about the rest of us? How can we hide in plain sight?

On the Internet, if you’re clever and diligent enough, you can surf more or less totally anonymously – but really, most of us aren’t doing that. Out in public, though, it’s becoming harder and harder: ATM records are linked to security footage; cell phone GPS data (i.e., your physical location) is tracked and recorded, as is your car’s location if you’ve got OnStar or its bretheren. It’s not practical for most of us to detatch from the system entirely, and playing a character constantly isn’t really an option, either – for one thing, we don’t all have a Hollywood studio and PAs to pay for everything.

We all leave traces, everywhere, and there are a lot of people (and not-people) watching. I don’t have an answer to the problem of privacy, exactly, but I do have a solution: stop viewing it as a problem. Accept that, at least for right now, there are massive amounts of information about you that are out there, and that lots of people can, if they want, find out lots of things about you. In exceedingly rare cases, they might even try to defraud you (though most of the time, you can get your money back).

But ya know what? This has always been true. People could go to the public records office, or follow you around, look in your windows with binoculars, ask your friends about you, or even mug you. In fact, all of these things happen still. They’re not great, but mostly people do not live in existential fear of unknown others finding out about their home purchases – nor should they do the same about their clickstream data.

What we should do, however, is begin to form sensibilities about just what people ought to do. Peeping-Tom-ism is generally accepted as Not Cool and is, in some cases, potentially illegal. But we got there without mandating that all windows be one-way or that binoculars have a sensor that blurs human forms to counteract potential acts of perversion. We got there through common sense

Similarly, rather than accepting our fate as constantly-trackable name-numbers in a surveillance society, we ought to apply common sense measures for those things that people, non-people (computers), corporations and governments ought to watch us doing. Is my life and liberty threatened by Amazon.com tracking everything I click on in their site and giving me recommendations? No, not really. Do I care particularly about the fact that, when I’m in a city, I’m on camera? Not particularly, no; if I were so paranoid to believe that They were out to get me, I’d hope that I’d also be smart enough to realize that They would probably be able to find me easily even without CCTV. But should corporations be able to buy and collate massive amounts of personal information from governments, and sell the information you give them in, say, warranty registrations, for profit? I’d say probably not.

Not everyone will agree on all these counts, and that’s fine – it’s to be expected. We all make different judgments about a wide range of issues about public and private conduct of people, corporations and government. What we ought to realize is that while there’s no realistic way to hit the “off” switch entirely as concerns availability of personal information, the total-surveillance society is also not a foregone conclusion. We can have opinions and make decisions about these things, and ought to do so.

UPDATE: Apparently there’s something in the miasma around SILS today, because Fred just checked in with remarkably similar thoughts, pertaining specifically to Google’s role in all of this.

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