Privacy From What?

A new play starring Daniel Radcliffe shows just how muddled our conversations about data are.

Daniel Radcliffe, Michael Countryman, Raffi Barsoumian, and Reg Rogers in Privacy.
Michael Countryman, Raffi Barsoumian, Daniel Radcliffe, and Reg Rogers in Privacy.

Joan Marcus

Three years after Edward Snowden revealed to the world the scale and scope of the U.S. government’s digital surveillance apparatus, what is the state of public discourse on issues related to technological privacy? Exceedingly jumbled judging by the play Privacy, which stars Daniel Radcliffe and opened at the Public Theater in New York City on Monday (after previews July 2–17). The play, created by James Graham and Josie Rourke, is an updated and heavily revised version of the 2014 London production put on by the Donmar Warehouse, which also co-produced the New York production. It is intended as a work of documentary theater: Much of the dialogue is stitched together from interviews with a series of academics, civil liberties advocates, journalists, tech industry representatives, and policy makers.

The frantically paced mini-lectures, interactive audience participation, and projected slides (to say nothing of the bibliography in the program) make the whole experience feel more like a college seminar than an evening at the theater. But the unstructured muddle of ideas and characters and topics—including how technology changes the nature of loneliness and intimacy, government surveillance, corporate data collection, the curation of online identities, and Brexit, to name just a few—is too disorganized to offer any clear or nuanced lessons about digital privacy. (Of course, a play isn’t necessarily supposed to teach lessons, but this one has such a strong instructional bent that it seems worth noting.) Instead, it offers a fascinating and slightly alarming picture of just how confused our understanding of privacy remains and how little progress we’ve made, post-Snowden, toward having a thoughtful, informed, level-headed conversation about it.

In fairness, I am not the target demographic for this show. (It seemed to be aimed more at the two women sitting behind me who spent 15 minutes trying to figure out how to silence their cellphones without turning them off.) Also, it’s quite possible that I was the only person in the theater who wanted to see a thoughtful conversation about privacy more than she wanted to see Harry Potter in the flesh (if not the full flesh). But if the show’s sold-out audiences spend two-and-a-half hours thinking seriously about how the modern world’s technology has reshaped who knows what about each of us, then who cares whether the wizarding world initially drew them to the theater?

The plot, such as it is, centers on Radcliffe’s character (“the writer”) deciding, in the aftermath of a painful breakup and an unsuccessful therapy session, to go on a journey to New York to stalk his ex and learn about the nature of privacy (as one does). Along the way, he encounters (or imagines encounters with) everyone from law professor Daniel Solove to a Russian Uber driver named Anatoly, New York Civil Liberties Union representative Ujala Sehgal, former Facebook spokesperson Randi Zuckerberg, Edward Snowden, FBI Director James Comey, and many, many others.

A projected backdrop with the names of the people onstage in every scene helps the audience keep track of who each actor is playing at any given moment. Even with these titles, though, I felt a professorial desire for more notes and outlines to help analyze and give context to the ideas being thrown out. Take, for instance, the assertion (tossed out incredulously) that, unlike the member nations of the European Union, the United States has no federal privacy law. What the authors mean to point out (I assume) is that there is no single federal law in this country that deals with the handling of all types of data in the same manner as the European Data Protection Directive. There are, however, several federal laws in the United States that deal with things like privacy protections for health data, video rental records, education records, or children younger than 13. And there are many more state-level laws that deal with other dimensions of data privacy and breach notification policies.

There are lots of legitimate criticisms of the laws governing privacy in the United States, including that those policies fragment privacy into too many sector-specific silos. But it is misleading to claim there is no federal privacy law on the books just because there is a patchwork of different laws that define privacy frameworks and protections for specific types of data and circumstances instead. This may not be the best way to design comprehensive privacy regulations, but as Privacy so aptly demonstrates, there’s also danger in conflating all the different kinds of privacy with little regard for the distinctions between issues like personal privacy, government surveillance, and corporate data collection.

The play begins with a very personal notion of privacy—Radcliffe’s character’s mother (played by the delightful Rachel Dratch) complains that her son never opens up to her, and Radcliffe reveals that his ex also found him to be too guarded with his emotions. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and Reclaiming Conversation author Sherry Turkle (also Dratch) shows up to encourage Radcliffe to spend less time on his phone and more time talking to real people, dispensing wisdom like “without privacy, there can be no intimacy,” and “this thing [technology] that is supposed to connect us, actually disconnects us.”

But building intimate relationships involves a very different set of privacy issues from what data Google or Facebook collects about you—and how those companies use that information. And corporate privacy discussions are themselves distinct from, though related to, the questions of government surveillance and law enforcement access to digital data. The play constantly jumps back and forth between all of these topics with no warning or clarification. One minute we’re watching Radcliffe struggle to connect personally with a blind date, the next we’re witnessing his identity being stolen, and minutes later we’re in the middle of an NSA interrogation—as if all of these situations pose similar privacy problems with related solutions.

The play is more about overwhelming and confusing questions than it is about solutions, unless you count “put down your phone.” (As my companion pointed out, that advice really only helps you protect your data if you never pick it up again.) This is understandable—solutions are hard—but what I found more frustrating is that Privacy is unwilling to even seriously engage with the perspectives of any of the people collecting and using our data: in companies, in law enforcement, or in the intelligence community. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt pops up briefly, as do an advertising executive, a police officer, an NSA agent, and Comey, but all are portrayed as caricatures, trotted out just to prove how little regard they have for privacy of any kind. (Comey, for instance, encourages Radcliffe to break into his ex’s phone.)

Privacy hints at a fundamental confusion about the different kinds of privacy, why each one matters, how each is challenged, and how each can be better protected. That we’re playing so fast and loose with those distinctions in 2016 is a little disheartening. So was the moment when those of us in the audience were instructed to check the list of frequently visited locations stored on our phones—and astonished gasps broke out throughout the theater. Behind me, a guy exclaimed, “That’s awesome!” The young son of the woman sitting next to me asked his mother, “How does it do that?” She told him reassuringly, “That’s why I turned my phone off.”

All around me, in the packed theater, people were thinking and talking about the data stored on their phones. Surely that was some kind of a victory. Right?

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.