Privacy is Dead. Long Live Transparency!

Privacy is Dead. Long Live Transparency!

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I grew up in a small island community, where everybody knew one another and privacy did not really exist. I often joke about how this accident of upbringing provided me with great training for the future.

Privacy is a relatively recent thing. Long before we started to cut ourselves off from each other in our isolated castles and separate bedrooms, we lived communally together in tribes. From an evolutionary and sociological point of view, this is how we are designed, and I am not sure our bodies or souls are actually cut out for living in detached houses inside gated communities!

Not too long ago, if you lived in a city you could easily maintain several  separate identities: your work persona, your home persona and even your ‘going out’ or holiday persona. This has never been possible in small communities where everybody knows you, your family and your business. It’s just something you accept and are comfortable with.

Social networking and the internet are radically reducing privacy while increasing transparency, and thanks to the immediacy of ubiquitous smartphone coverage, interconnectedness permeates our everyday lives. This makes it harder to have a split identity or to maintain separate aspects of your life.

Transparency is accelerating exponentially. Think of technology like Google Glass, by which we could all be taking photos or videos effortlessly at any moment. Any private moment  anywhere could be instantly made public everywhere.  (click to tweet)  Facial recognition technology already exists, offering the potential for us to immediately know the identity of everyone around us. I must add that Google aren’t currently allowing this – but it will come!

There are also startups like UrtheCast, trialling technology that will provide live video feeds of the world through an API (application program interface) enabling any web developer to access its outputs. Yes, I did say live video feed of the entire planet available to everyone! Or look at Project Loon which aims to provide internet access everywhere – no doubt without the government censorship and control that occurs in places like North Korea, China and Iran. These technologies already work. It’s just a matter of rolling them out over the next few years.

Then we have futuristic developments like the human brain direct web interface to look forward to – or be afraid of! You would be surprised how many people are working on this already. The first Brain Tech conference brings the industry together in Israel in October. Think of the huge degree of transparency there will be, when the world instantly knows what you are thinking! Minority Report no longer seems far-fetched.

Transparency is increasing everywhere. Consider sites like Tripadvisor and their impact on the travel market. This is just the beginning, but it looks set to affect everything we do on earth: not just impacting on what we consume but how we behave, too. I would hate to be part of a big company or government these days. If you think Wikileaks and Edward Snowden are bad news, this is just the beginning. Maintaining any form of secrecy will be harder, so organisations need to start looking at other ways to achieve their aims. Clandestine systems will just end up collapsing under the ever-increasing burden of transparency.

Speaking as someone from a small community that accidentally pre-empted the future, I can confidently say that this is a good thing. People and organisations will be forced to display their true colours, and inauthenticity will be exposed. Sure, there are some negatives and there will be losers and injustices that result from a transition as impactful as this, but we must accept all that it brings. Change is chaotic, but it we can’t fight it.

From my experience, transparency changes behaviour: it forces you to do the right thing. Transparency creates community. And for those reasons, our loss of privacy looks set to actually make us better off. To be successful in the future, you will have to be good. You will have to deliver a great service. You will have to be pure and authentic. Otherwise you just won’t be able to make a living, get elected or even get a job, in a world with 100% transparency.

The era of the split identity and compartmentalised life is disappearing. The era of separate thought and action may have also had its day. We all need to prepare for this future because it is already here. We are increasingly exposed, accountable and open to public scrutiny and judgement. Your everyday actions at home, work or play could end up betraying you. Unless you conduct yourself with integrity.

One of the key skills required is being comfortable in your own skin, an ability to be yourself at all times. This is actually the foundation of a happy life. Whilst the death of privacy will be a bad thing for many, I think it might just make us all a lot happier. We will be forced to be ourselves, since there is nowhere else to go.It’s an unstoppable rising tide, so we may as well just deal with it and get practising for a bright, open, honest future.

So take it from me: you can live without privacy. It just takes getting used to. The upside of losing privacy is gaining huge transparency – and on balance, I think that’s a great thing.

I have been thinking about this for a long time. I would love to know your thoughts on this idea. Please get involved in the debate and ‘Speak your mind’ openly and transparently in the comments section below.

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  1. Nothing to hide, nothing to fear, eh?

    You (I’m afraid to say wrongly) assume that our data is harvested for benign purposes. Even were the purpose benign, all it takes is one malfeasant individual with access to your data to ruin your life.

    Consider the opaqueness of decisions around, say, credit, or university admissions. Now imagine that every decision in your life is made for you by a civil servant who knows better than you because he has your data.

    This is the path we are on. You need only look to the USSR, who were similarly enthused by the universal panopticon, to understand what mass surveillance actually results in.

    If we are to be so utterly transparent, then *everybody* should have access to the data the NSA, GCHQ and chums collect, and it should include all sigint, unfiltered.

    There is no conceivable way in which any of this is a good thing.

    • I think the interesting thing at the moment is the backlash on NSA and GCHQ etc. Personally I feel that this is only the beginning. Transparency is starting to work both ways. Sure if you considered behaviour today with people that harvest data you would find it hard to find any of it a good thing. Personally I think much of this old school behaviour will be forced to change and adapt under the ever increasing light being shone on their behaviour. Time will tell!

  2. Transparency is great when everyone does. However it is currently a one-way looking glass where governments are concerned. Likewise in the wrong hands a lack of privacy is perfect for dictators. What if one day your race, religion, or comments from the past don’t fit with the fascist/communist state? There will literally be no place to hide. In future – and you could argue it is already the case – there may no longer be a neutral state like Switzerland in WWII where people can flee to with some insurance policy money.

  3. Mark – this is spooky! Have you already got a direct web interface into MY brain. This topic is exactly the conclusion I’ve come to recently. The power of social media and the web is such that it’s increasingly harder and harder to mask any double and dodgy identity and actions. I would love to see a case study which tracks the social media efforts and use by criminals that committed serious crimes as well as petty. I would assume that the correlation is very negative. The more social media is used the less criminal the person is. The most socially connected people are likely to be the most honest and truthful.

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