The Book Club

Privacy in a Culture of Exposure

Dear Eugene and Declan,

Many thanks for your generous and thoughtful responses to my book. Let me try to respond to the sharpest challenges–namely, Eugene’s claim that what privacy really protects is the indignity of being understood rather than (as I argue) misunderstood and Declan’s claim that technology can save us from the brave new world of virtual exposure.

Eugene questions my thesis that privacy protects us from being judged out of context in a world where information can easily be confused with knowledge. “Say the government searches your house, reads all your diaries, and subpoenas all your friends,” he suggests. “The government will be able to judge you accurately and as in-context as possible.” Really? One of the heroes of my book is Monica Lewinsky, a woman whose privacy was shattered by precisely this kind of mental strip search. But even after searching her house, reading her diaries, and subpoenaing her friends, Kenneth Starr still managed to misjudge Monica Lewinsky. Because of his own ideological preconceptions (and dime store narrative), Starr insisted Lewinsky was a helpless victim who had been preyed on by the president and then accepted a promotion in exchange for a promise to lie. In her mind she was something very different–a strong woman who had freely chosen to have an affair with the president, lost the job she loved as a result, and technically told the truth under oath. But, of course, Starr didn’t know Monica Lewinsky: He never even met her, let alone looked her in the eye.

Monica Lewinsky’s experience is a rebuke to those who (unlike Eugene) suggest that complete transparency of personal information is the best remedy to being judged out of context. As I argue in the book, even if complete DoubleClick logs of my online and off-line browsing habits were posted on the Web, the limits of other people’s attention spans would ensure that no one would bother to read my logs from beginning to end. Filtered or unfiltered, isolated bits of information are no substitute for the genuine knowledge that can emerge only slowly over time. And even if a Stasi-minded stranger was determined enough to read all my logs, he would still misjudge me. As Milan Kundera argues, all of us, in our backstage behavior, say things we don’t really mean, tell dirty jokes, shock friends with heretical statements, and so forth. This is why, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the police destroyed an important figure of the Prague Spring by taping his private conversations with a friend and broadcasting them as a radio serial.

But isn’t it possible to imagine a violation of my privacy that would cause me to be judged, as Eugene suggests, in context rather than out of context? This is the Ravelstein problem, in which Saul Bellow (arguably with his friend’s consent) painted a granular picture of the private face of Alan Bloom. But Ravelstein shows that even Nobel Prize-winning novelists may find it hard to portray their friends in all of their complicated dimensions. Bellow confesses that he has chosen to focus on Bloom’s flamboyant backstage behavior rather than his ideas, because Bellow feels others are better qualified to judge Bloom’s ideas. If Saul Bellow can’t portray his best friend in all of his complexity, how likely is it that less reliable narrators would do better? And anyway, how many of us can have our biographies written by Saul Bellow?

Ravelstein is my answer to those who say that the answer to being judged out of context is more transparency and more information. Defenders of transparency have adopted a unified view of personality, which views social masks as a way of misrepresenting the true self. This view of personality is simplistic and misleading. I may (and do) wear different public masks when interacting with my friend Eugene (who I saw for lunch in Washington last Saturday), with my Slate editor Jodi Kantor (who I met at a party in New York a few months ago), with my parents, and with my dry cleaner. (Sorry for invading your privacy, guys.) Far from being inauthentic, each of these masks helps me to try to behave in a way that is appropriate to these different social settings. If these masks were to be violently torn away, as Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood learned, what would be exposed is not my true self but the spectacle of a wounded and defenseless man.

Eugene asks whether I think law should protect us against the indignity of being misjudged by our fellow citizens. I argue at length in the book that it should not. Indeed, the book suggests that constitutional protections for private papers should be resurrected to limit the government’s ability to collect intimate information; but when the state provides legal remedies for social misjudgments, as in the sexual harassment arena, it may inadvertently precipitate privacy violations greater than those it seeks to remedy.

This brings us to the question that Declan introduces–is law, technology, or politics the best way of protecting us from Internet surveillance in an economy that is increasingly based on the recording and exchange of intimate personal information. My book argues that there is no single answer, and that all three are important in different contexts. I note that Congress could adopt a global privacy law, along the lines of the European Union, which would create property rights in personal data and/or prohibit data from being used or resold without the individual’s consent. But property rights can easily be sold, and as Eugene has noted elsewhere, restrictions on the ability of companies to resell data they have lawfully acquired might violate their rights of commercial speech. All three of us, I think, are skeptical about law as a panacea in this area, but maybe we’re wrong to be skittish. Louis Brandeis, the greatest hero of The Unwanted Gaze, had no doubt about the importance of adapting and extending old legal protections to respond to new technological threats to privacy; maybe we need new Brandeis torts for the 21st century.

When I said social norms should protect privacy, I was referring to face-to-face interactions in the workplace, not to responses to clickstream data collection in cyberspace. Similarly, Declan is right to distinguish between personally and non-personally identifiable clickstream data; and I argue that the latter is a much greater invasion. To protect us against this invasion, Declan rightly points to the virtues of technological self-help, and my book discusses the various possibilities sympathetically and at length, pointing to providers of anonymous and pseudonymous browsing and identity authentification, such as Zero-Knowledge. I tell the story of James Rutt, the Internet executive who feared that his own cyber-chat might come back to haunt him. He was happy to gossip about politics and his weight problem among virtual friends, but when appointed head of an Internet company, he worried that his gossip might be taken out of context. Fortunately, Rutt was able to use a “scribble” technology that allowed him to erase a decade of his own chat.

But, as I note, these technological fixes have an Austin Powers-like aura that is likely to deter all but the most vigilant techies; and although they are important, I hope we won’t be so overwhelmed by technological determinism that all of us have to use self-deleting chat and e-mail whenever we want to tell a joke or gossip among friends. This would represent a bovine surrender that would put us in the same category as citizens in the Soviet Union who responded to constant surveillance by avoiding telephones and paying only in cash.

This is why I might put more weight than Declan in old-fashioned politics to prevent real-world identity from being linked to virtual identity in the first place. It was political protests that forced DoubleClick to abandon its scheme to link my real-world identity to my online and off-line browsing habits, and political protests that forced Intel and Real Networks to disable the globally unique identification numbers from their Pentium chips and virtual jukeboxes. One of the goals of the book is to make a case for why privacy is important–a case that proves to be surprisingly complicated in a culture of exposure–and in the process to rouse people to resist each assault on privacy as it occurs. But perhaps I’m being alarmist?

Back to you, Eugene.