Privacy: The state or condition of being free from being observed or disturbed by other people. Computers, cameras, microphones, drones and satellites are surrounding us with observers these days, much to the indignation and even outrage of many. Never mind that, for the average person, current ideas of privacy are a luxury provided primarily to middle class, industrialized people and only during the last couple of centuries. How quickly we forget!
To tribes of hunter-gatherers, the farmers who replaced them, medieval peasants modern slum dwellers and many members of non- Christian/non – Western cultures the concept of personal privacy common among Americans and Europeans can seem rather odd. Nevertheless, privacy is understood and valued everywhere; it is just the details that differ, though sometimes to a startling degree.
Government and business institutions equipped with newly available technology are threatening the most fundamental and universal precepts of privacy everywhere. Miniature electronic eyes and ears are appearing in homes, businesses, schools and public spaces. Electronic payments and communications are monitored, cell phones and vehicles are tracked and data bases set up for the personal data of constantly increasing numbers of individuals. In China a “Social Credit’ account for individual citizens automatically restricts private activities and orders punishments according to observations of individual behavior. The same pattern is growing in the United States, starting with censorship of social media use and publication of TSA “no fly” lists. Parents now listen to and watch young children at home on their telephones and we know that what can happen, will happen.
Politicized social changes are fueling some challenges to past ideas of privacy as genetic males are imposed upon previously female facilities and vice versa while coitus is taught in schools as marriage is devalued. About the only place an individual can be reasonably certain of personal privacy these days is his own mind. Or, of course, hers or its. But mind reading tech appears imminent.
Younger folk who grow up with all this and without old Christian mores will probably wonder what all the fuss was about. They and their children will learn. U.S. states are constructing “Cradle to Career” data systems intended to track every child from birth through workplace entry with workplace tracking to follow. A Federal database already identifies about half of U.S. citizens and the FBI is assembling facial recognition data for everyone readily accessible. All of these may sit idly between usages by statisticians but would you like to bet on that? Congress is already planning to enlist schools and others to identify likely mass shooters in advance with a proposal worrying civil rights groups.
Governments have always done what they could to control their citizens’ behavior; that is after all, their purpose. Too, they have always carried that purpose to excess in defense against resistant citizens who are themselves illustrating the rationale for government. America’s founders tried to impose a balance with their adoption of the U.S. Constitution but human nature provided an end run around that bulwark in 1803 when the Supreme Court used Marbury vs Madison to essentially (and unconstitutionally), replace that Constitution with itself. To a government, security lies in prevention so a citizen’s personal privacy is a potential threat. Once that obstacle is removed with detailed knowledge of all citizens, it is a reflex to weed out impending threats as Congressis pursuing with the mass shooting legislation mentioned above.
We have removed personal privacy with our new mastery of electrons, creating a new intimacy between government and its citizens. Government will naturally respond with more intimate control. And to again paraphrase the old Roman poet: Who will control the controllers?