Friday, March 10, 2017

Suppose the Privacy Genie Is Out of the Bottle

Consider two axes that quantify the world we live in: weak vs strong privacy and permissive vs puritanical standards of judging people. If we have strong privacy, puritanical standards of judgment are acceptable because we can keep private all those things that we don’t want our neighbors to know about. If we have weak privacy, the puritanical standard would be intolerable because everyone would be judging every offhand comment you make and every behind-closed-doors action you take with other consenting adults. Puritanical standards require strong privacy. A permissive world allows for either strong or weak privacy. It’s nice to know you can keep a secret (strong privacy), but in a permissive world nobody’s judging you anyway.

But consider that the privacy genie might be out of the bottle. Perhaps everything you say is said within range of a microphone, speech-to-text software converts it to a text file and time-stamps and location-stamps everything that’s said, and your enemies can scour the record (or simply text-search your entire history of speech) for something incriminating. All these technologies already exist. The microphone is your smart phone, or possibly even someone else’s smartphone. Time- and location-stamping are simple enough, and speech-to-text software is already pretty sophisticated and getting better all the time. Perhaps some social justice warriors are trying to sick the vengeance of the internet on you for some dumb comment you made years ago. Or maybe someone is suing you and trying to cast you in a bad light. Or someone wants to blackmail you over all the cynical remarks you make about your employer. The ammunition is lying out there in the master log of every conversation you’ve ever had.

Or consider that someone hacks your Fitbit and sees a bunch of rapid wrist-motions followed by hand-washing and then a sudden decrease in heart-rate. We mostly assume that everyone does these things, but for some reason it’s incriminating for the whole world to know about a specific instance of it.

There is likely no way to stop these eventualities, other than going full Luddite and halting all technological progress. A few stop-gap privacy laws can forestall the inevitable, perhaps, but there’s no reasonable way to stop it. (Privacy laws, you say? I’ll just go on the dark web and buy your full spoken word record, logged with ubiquitous malware infecting most smartphones. You only use a closed-platform Apple phone, you say? What about all the people who sit near you? Can you vouch for their phones?) We can’t legislate our way out of this problem, but we can adopt cultural norms that make it easier to live with. We could adopt a norm that it’s sleazy to scour someone’s private life for incriminating quotes and statements. We can learn to cool our jets when an out-of-context quote upsets our delicate sensibilities. I imagine a conversation like the following:

Person 1: “Did you see what [disgraced celebrity] said! Isn’t that disgusting!”
Person 2: “People say stuff like that all the time. Here is data on 300 million people’s full speech history proving it. A proclivity to say such things doesn't meaningfully correlate with any kind of anti-social behavior, either. It's just dumb stuff people say during a good bull-session.”
Person 1: "Oh, it looks like your right. I should learn to chill the fuck out, huh?"
Person 2: "Let's look up your history while we're on here..."
Person 1: "No, no. I'll be good."
Person 2: "You'll stop bringing shit like this to me, then?"
Person 1: "I'll stop."

This world of zero privacy might seem scary and creepy. But I would hope that sensibilities change to adapt to it. When someone claims that a quote is being taken out of context, the record is right there to prove it. (Then again, that's true today and the outraged crusaders don't care to add in the readily available, easily searchable context.) If someone says, "So what, people say stuff like that all the time," there would be an open record of millions of people to verify this claim. We could check whether a quote is truly representative of a person's thinking, or whether more frequent and more recent statements by the same person contradict it. Eventually we wouldn't even be tempted to check these things, because we'd realize there is a high base-rate for cynical or offensive language in private conversation and that it doesn't meaningfully correlate with a person's overall virtue. We'd learn to dismiss these "outrageous quote" stories (even "outrageous paraphrase" stories) because we know someone with bad intentions went fishing for dirt. Once that becomes a common understanding, those viral outrageous quote stories will stop happening. And then we can all move on with our lives. I'm not advocating for zero privacy or trying to get you to like it. I find it really creepy myself. Honestly I don't fully trust my fellow creatures to adopt the appropriate norms to deal with this world. But assuming the zero privacy world is inevitable, I want to strongly advocate for a "be less judgmental" norm.

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