I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him but did not find him.
Song of Solomon 3:1
My Social Imps class is currently discussing privacy. My assignment, which I chose to accept:
Write a reflection paper on your thoughts about automated government surveillance of Web sites, chat rooms, and so forth.
The question, of course, is whether it’s morally acceptible to have web-bots constantly searching for suspicious online activity. The question goes on to suggest that allowing automated webpage surveillance somehow violates our rights. What kind of privacy should we expect online? What rights do we have, really?
The Internet is, at its very heart, a public space devoted to cross-cultural discourse. People who establish an online presence do so with the full and complete knowledge that their presence–most often in the form of a website, but also through online chatting–is completely public. Website creators realize that their sites are no more private than a front yard, and that items displayed on those sites are analogous to lawn ornaments. A person does not create a website with the intention of maintaining his privacy. Similarly, chats that take place online, while providing the illusion of privacy, are in reality no more private than a one-on-one conversation in a crowded restaurant. The web’s very existence is contingent upon the public exchange of information; individuals cannot display what they consider private information thereon and expect that information to remain private. Such an action would be like hanging your underwear out to dry in your front yard, then being affronted when passers-by comment and point. There may be no privacy on the Internet, but people also have total control over the information they display online. They can decide what data to make publicly available as well as choosing what to keep private.
Assuming consider a personal webpage like a front yard, let us extend the analogy. A homeowner assumes that anybody who comes by will look into his yard, and so he will take pains to not display inappropriate, or highly personal, items there: a person wouldn’t sit naked in his front yard. In fact, a homeowner couldn’t rightfully stop the government from setting up surveillance cameras aimed constantly at his front yard; the government can exercise the right to watch the outside of houses as frequently as they choose. However, if a person wants increased privacy, he could build an enormous, tall brick wall around the front yard, which would be analogous to password-protecting a website. Once that barrier exists, the homeowner’s privacy has been established and a search warrant would have to accompany any further surveillance.
The issue of surveilling, whether online or in person, raises concerns regarding a user’s autonomy as a person. Edgar points out in Morality and Machines that, insofar as websites and online chats constitute the results of thoughts and actions,
one would seem to have a right to protect…thoughts and actions against unwanted intrusions, in the same way that no one should violate someone else’s body (by rape or murder, for example) (224).
This suggests that, in Edgar’s view, constant software-maintained surveillance of a website is comparable to rape and as such surveillance violates basic privacies and the person’s ultimate autonomy. The crucial difference, however, is that while a website is an outgrowth of your thoughts and actions, it is also voluntarily made publicly available. To maintain Edgar’s analogy, a website is less like an unsuspecting rape victim and more like a consenting adult participant. Sites are designed totally autonomously in the privacy of the designer’s home and created as public faces for individuals; as such the government has every right to surveil all it desires. Surveillance software watching people online has not violated anybody’s privacy or autonomy if it only scans public websites.
The privacy concerns regarding software surveillance of online activities are not, for the most part, valid ones. The issue of software versus human surveillance isn’t actually a problem because online surveillance of public websites and chats is perfectly moral and legal whether conducted by man or machine. Because the Internet is a public space, the government has every right to surveil it, a right which vanishes with regards to private, password-protected websites. Online governmental surveillance is not the same as having an agent in every room; it’s more like having agents in every front yard—and that, while annoying, violates no privacy rights. Ultimately, online privacy is not curtailed by surveillance because online there is no real privacy.
One thought on “Privacy Online: You Have None”
Is the B&W photo a closeup of a socail imp?