The erosion of privacy

19:20, Nov 28 2010

Lives have been reshaped by open plan offices, social networks and mobile phones, smart or otherwise.

Privacy is now being challenged, some would say it is eroding fast. And that will change our lives, families and work patterns.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Sue Shellenbarger says privacy is slipping away.

We see it everywhere. Mobile phone calls, telemarketing calls that usually come at about from 4pm to tea time and car alarms from cars parked nearby.

Daily demands for our attention at work, in our neighborhoods and at home intrude on what used to be private time. Shellenbarger even cites one study where people actually take a call on their mobile during sex!

Go figure.


It happens in the office too where people keep intruding on each other's space, often for no reason other than to let them know they're around.

Shellenbarger writes: "One worker in the study started wearing headphones nonstop even when he wasn't listening to music - just to make people think he wasn't available. In other cases, I have seen staffers stick yellow police-line tape to their cubicles, to get a few hours of uninterrupted work time."

In a sense, the loss of some privacy is just the price we pay for living in a connected world with more technology and greater transparency. Yes mobile phones are an intrusion, but who can be without them?

And besides, you don't have to answer it if you are busy and you can have it on silent. Yes, open plan offices can cause all sorts of interruptions and encroachments on personal space.

But then, the best open plan offices have a more creative environment where ideas are constantly percolating. In any case, the erosion of some privacy is inevitable in this day and age.

It's a point taken up by one of my favourite bloggers, Seth Godin. He writes: "If you cared about privacy you wouldn't have a credit card, because, after all, they know everything you spend money on. And you wouldn't use the phone, because somewhere, there's a computer scanning what you say."

Back in 1999, the chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems Scott McNealy put it bluntly: "You have zero privacy anyway, get over it!"

Of course, the erosion of privacy goes well beyond the work place, mobile phones and chattering work colleagues. Governments and corporations are collecting data on whatever we do.

That goes to when we pay for goods electronically, sign up for arrangements or even visit cookie-toting web sites.

The Economist says we are learning to live with Big Brother. It used to be easy to tell whether you were in a free country or a police state because in a dictatorship the goons were everywhere. But now in democracies, it's more subtle.

"These days, data about people's whereabouts, purchases, behaviour and personal lives are gathered, stored and shared on a scale that no dictator of the old school ever thought possible. Most of the time, there is nothing obviously malign about this. Governments say they need to gather data to ward off terrorism or protect public health; corporations say they do it to deliver goods and services more efficiently. But the ubiquity of electronic data-gathering and processing-and above all, its acceptance by the public-is still astonishing, even compared with a decade ago."

The Economist compares the situation to a boiling frog. If it's eroded slowly people won't even notice it. In any case, the magazine says, privacy is a modern right, it's not something that has been around for centuries.

The implication behind all that is that we don't actually care. Is that right?

I believe we have core levels of privacy that go to our most intimate interactions. These need to be identified and protected. The rest can be compromised. But the bottom line is that we don't like surprises.

No one wants their credit card company to track purchases of certain magazines and access to web sites, or jewellery for a woman who is not your wife, and then send suggestions for similar magazines, web sites and jewellery purchases, maybe a special dinner for two thrown in as a bonus. We'll compromise, as long as there is nothing unexpected.

Similarly at work, most of us will put up with the intrusions if we can still get on with the job. But the barriers go up when we can no longer work or do what we are supposed to do.