Down the Privacy Rabbit Hole

Posted on October 23, 2013
Tags: privacy

Tim Lavoie

One of my main interests is privacy. Fundamentally, I am of the personal opinion that we should be able to freely associate, discuss and speak, without involvement of those who are not invited to the conversation.

In terms we are familiar with, this is mostly fairly simple. People we talk to are physically nearby, and we have visual or auditory confirmation of identity. We get introduced to someone, and we can decide to share (or not), based on the social cues we have grown up with. In general, this has served us well, and there are usually laws around the edge cases such as recording phone calls or bugging rooms, and leaving spy cameras in bathrooms. These things happen, but their effects are still localized; bugging your phone has traditionally meant access to physical wires or devices, and illicit recording devices are unlikely to be able to capture something not within the same room.

The digital age has changed all this, and in ways faster than most of us really understand and deal with right now. Fundamentally, the issue is that the world has become much, much smaller, at least where information is concerned.

Think about it like this: Our evolution has worked well for millions of years, but with a fairly straightforward set of rules to live by:

Threats were things you had in your proximity, and could mostly sense physically; you could see, hear or smell a bear. An animal too far away to bite you didn’t really matter. For microscopic exceptions, our immune systems have worked well enough to usually deal with attackers.

Threats from other people were mostly the same. Thousands of years ago, ranged weapons such as arrows and spears increased the threat radius from arm’s length to a few tens or hundreds of metres, but most of our history has been much, much closer.

Social interactions were on a similar scale. You could see or hear someone, and interaction involved proximity or the time needed to travel. Messages may be written down within the last few thousand years, but still travelled at the speed of a ship, horse, sound or the distance at which you could observe a semaphore flag.

Observation of what you did or said involved someone being close enough to observe you personally, or to be able to intercept a written message.

Much of this started to change in the last hundred years, give or take. That’s it. Your grandparents, certainly great-grandparents, likely spent part of their lives without a telephone in their home. They associated in person as a matter of course, and letters and telegrams served for long distance. Communications were mostly private, and involved someone’s personal intervention to make it otherwise.

With that stage set, I will next delve into how this has changed.