Privacy Only for the Privileged

Mark Zuckerberg and Julian Assange want privacy for themselves, but not for you.

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My post last week suggesting that leftist civil libertarians might make common cause over national security issues with anti-government libertarians of the right generated a perplexed response from an old friend. He wondered why so many people seemed exercised over National Security Agency surveillance but not by the similar, if not greater, surrender of privacy we pretty much take for granted in the Facebook era when it comes to the private sector. It seems to me, however, that the real issue here is the convergence of both "public" and "private" sectors in eroding the private.

This issue was given an interesting twist yesterday in a piece by Daniel S. Prieto on the Foreign Policy "National Security" channel. In "The Classifieds: Are American spies the next victims of the Internet age?", Prieto compares the "intelligence community" to other information industries and predicts that it will be similarly affected by the rise of the Internet, digital technologies and network economics. Writes Prieto, "In those models (think: print books or music CDs), intellectual capital was produced, owned, and tightly controlled by a few actors in hierarchical organizations, and the physical product was disseminated through fixed distribution channels.

That proprietary model obviously has crumbled in all these other industries. Very little information of any value can be kept proprietary any longer; large bureaucracies that tried to control and manage it have collapsed in the face of more nimble insurgents; and everything from hip-hop to fan fiction to YouTube and other form of "mash-up" display the ability of "outsiders" not just to access, but to change and then to feed back into the formerly-proprietary distribution channels their own versions of the information. Those publishing, broadcasting and other information-based firms that are surviving do so by embracing, rather than fighting, these developments.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

Prieto suggests that intel and national security must follow a similar path – and, in fact, are already doing so. The bulk of his piece focuses on the value of recognizing social media as an intelligence source: Look how much more we know about what's happening in, say, Egypt or Syria, than we would in the absence of Twitter! Less obvious applications provide the ability to predict poverty or famine from all sorts of privately-compiled data on water usage, commodity prices or light reflection – Prieto compares it to the shift in professional baseball away from the intuition of the professional scout (the "secret agent" of the baseball world) to the use of new data-driven concepts imagined, developed and compiled privately, but made available publicly, by outsiders like Bill James.

In fact, the words "public" and "private" become confusing, if not meaningless, in this context: Public sector and private sector actors work together in the world Prieto describes; the public-sector intelligence community relies on publicly-available, i.e. private-sector, information; and, in fact, the only thing that stays "private" is what's in the possession of the public sector.

This is where Prieto's information-industry analogy breaks down: The government spooks don't turn their intel over to private actors to massage for their own purposes and add value – as in the world of books and music – let alone to disseminate throughout society as a new form of communal enterprise. In short, in spy world, information flows only one way, and the old-fashioned proprietary model still holds.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Americans Be Worried About the National Security Agency's Data Collection?]

Poised to battle this model stands the radical belief in the early Internet dictum that "information wants to be free." It's not just that we live in a culture where everyone aspires to, and generally succeeds at, baring their inner selves on television. In a lengthy New Yorker profile years ago, Mark Zuckerberg expressed perplexity at why anyone would want to keep any information private – its value lies in the sharing. Julian Assange's outrage with an imperial power like the United States aims at not so much its military power and use thereof or the economic exploitation such power can extract – the historical critique of empire – but rather its proprietary approach to information; he appears cavalier, if not dismissive, of the effects that information release may have on even innocent lives. The avatars of the information age hold a deep-seated belief in the moral necessity of the unobstructed flow of information and in the value of that flow.

At least, when it comes to others' information. You actually can't "friend" Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook, let alone access his private information. Assange has spent most of his life hiding both his corporeal and virtual selves. Edward Snowden believes the NSA's secrets should be revealed. Except when it behooves him to hold them in reserve. Perfectly justified, I'm sure they would all argue, given the threats and challenges they face.

But isn't that what the governmental and corporate secret-keepers whom they aim to displace say, too? (In fact, today's New York Times Magazine story by Peter Maass on Snowden and his journalist collaborators portrays their operations as startling similar not just to the intelligence services they're exposing but also to the "old media" business model Prieto declares a dinosaur both in media and in espionage.)

The dichotomy ahead is not between public and private, at least preceding the word "sector." Rather, it is that you may have no privacy, meaning proprietary interest in any and all information about yourself, but those with power, economic or political or technological, will – because information doesn't want to be "free." It wants to be valuable. And, as with most valuables, those who have it want more. Just not for you.

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