[iDC] The difference between privacy and anonymity

Armin Medosch armin at easynet.co.uk
Tue Sep 29 07:39:57 UTC 2009

This thread interests me, because we organised the conference Goodby
Privacy at Ars Electronic in 2007 where we dealt with many of the same
questions. The title Goodby Privacy! (with that exclamation mark) had
been decided by Ars Electronica, so as the curators of the conference we
had to somehow work around it. The people from Ars Electronica had the
relatively simple thesis that in the age of facebook and other such
platforms privacy had become obsolete and we could very happily give it
up, especially since there was evidence that the majority of people had
already done that and did not value privacy anymore anyway. This
appeared to be a somehow flawed thesis. When researching the theme
further we came around some interesting things. 

What started to worry us was not the end of privacy, but the
simultaneous decline of public life. So as a starting point I would like
to put that what really matters is a rich public life. Habermas
described how out of the private sphere of communication of the
bourgeoisie the public sphere came into existence. What is wrong with
that? Nothing, I would say, per se, but, and that is a big but, that the
fantastic private sphere of the borugeoisie which allowed subjectivities
to be shaped of rational and passionate discussants was reserved only
for the bourgeoisie, while workers, peasants, servants and everybody
else was by definition excluded from participation in this dialectics
between private and public. Well, a lot of water has gone under the
bridge since that, but we can note that the dialectic between private
and public was and to some degree still is constituitive for liberal
democracies. We can say that this liberal utopia will essentially stay
just that, a utopia, as long as only a small part of the world
population participated in it. Yet now also technological conditions
have changed, capitalism has changed, has become 'flexible' and
accumulates by invading ever more deeper into the 'private sphere' yet
also the psyche, etc. is that a reason to abandon 'privacy' as a
category? I would say definitely not. 
The problem also stems from the way such categories are used in
discussions. Here comes in John Sobol's post about lived life. Some
would say that the lived life is a surface experience and in order to
know anything we need those theoretic categories to form models.
However, I would not dismiss lived life so easily. "The people whom I
know" might not be an appropriate empiric basis for discussion, yet
somehow positing a 'reality' as opposed to taking the meaning of
categories for granted appears useful. As these terms relate to social
categories which are permanently produced we cannot take their meaning
for granted and need to find ways of understanding those changing
meanings. Otherwise we could be caught up in a very unfortunate
dialectic between either abandoning privacy completely (because we
recognise its troubled historic origins in a paternalistic private
sphere of a specific class) or we end up 'defending' it as some privacy
advocates in the UK and US do, on a completely false basis, as if
privacy was something that 'we' 'have'. Neither option is desirable. 

Why? Because the value of privacy is not that private things stay
private. Nobody, neither the state nor the mighty multinational is
interested in putting us under surveillance when we bring our children
to bed or make love or cook food. The value of privacy stems exactly
from its relation to the public sphere. We need those private spaces
where we can learn to speak our minds freely, we need those spaces also
where we can form groups and organise ourselves and decide on actions to
take. Thus, it was rightly pointed out that privacy is related to
anonymity. Yet lets take this a step further. besides the axis
private-public there is also the axis transparency-secrecy. As Saskia
Sassen has shown in her last book, under neoliberal conditions it is
wrong to say that the state as a whole is getting less powerful. On the
contrary, the executive branch of government has become much more
powerful. It is exactly the link between the super-secretive boardrooms
and secretive, not-supervised-by-any-parliamentary power kitchen
cabinets in the style of Tony Blair which is extremely worrysome. The
invasion of 'our' privacy corresponds to the expansion of privacy,
secrecy and power of the super wealthy, the drugs and guns mafia and
their political puppets. Therefore, rather than abandoning privacy we
need to find ways of better protecting it while simultaneously
understanding its changing meaning and while at the same time demanding
more transparency in government, both corporate and state, and while
also maintaining the capability to discuss and organise also, if we
choose so, anonymously even within networks. 

For those ends I found Helen Nissenbaum's concept of 'contextual
integrity' in relation to privacy quite useful (you can find one paper
While privacy cannot stand as a grand total category void of any lived
social meaning, it is also impossible to protect privacy if it is
conceptualised as an entity which is somehow like an invisible sphere
which we carry around us, a fixed entity with stable boundaries around
which we put our personal firewalls. But what can be done is use
existing 'tools' in the broadest meaning, digital tools such as
encryption, tunneling, etc. to protect our data when possible (which is
why I would hate to give up my laptop and have my data hosted ina cloud
run by amazon or gooogle), and legal tools as well as other tools to
fight abuse of personal data. In that regard something quite amazing
happened in Berlin ca two weeks ago where on the 12th of september I
think it was 25.000 people marched against state and corporate
surveillance. Organised by the usual suspects such as foebud the
demonstration had support also by trade unions and professional
organisations of lawyers and teachers for instance, which is why so many
people came. Thus, coming back to 'lived life', people actually do care
about those things and they are growing in numbers while the discourse
is also growing in complexity moving away from the old fashioned
'defence of privacy' to demanding more citizen rights, among that the
right to speak in public without fear.   

those were my 2 cents, would love also to talk about commonality and
'carneval' as a way of merging the excessive with the political but need
to work now


thenextlayer software, art, politics http://www.thenextlayer.org

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