Big Uncle: what is “normal” privacy?

We have been discussing Big Uncle, the benevolent aspects of the loss of privacy to security systems. Today we will look closer at the concept of privacy.

What is “normal” privacy anyway? The ex-chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy said long ago that consumer privacy issues are a "red herring… You have zero privacy anyway… Get over it"1. Public expectations of privacy will change as we get used to exposing so much of our lives electronically2.

Has your attitude to using your credit card online changed over the past ten years? Do you allow cookies on your PC? Did you always? Do you even think about the EFTPOS trail you leave? Expectations of total privacy are a Twentieth Century phenomenon, that emerged as we moved away from communal housing and village living. There is no reason why they can not be rolled back again. The issue is that it takes time to change something so conservative and personal.

McNealy suffered a fierce backlash for his comments. So too will any organisation that moves too quickly to reduce privacy. Change will be incremental. According to The Economist “A society capable of constant and pervasive surveillance is being rapidly built around us, sometimes with our co-operation, more often without our knowledge …

Occasionally there is a burst of publicity about some particularly intrusive new method of data collection. But once the fuss is over, the public acquiesces in the surrender of more information—until the next revelation… Each benefit—more security against terrorists or criminals, better government services, higher productivity at work, better medical care, a wider selection of products, more convenience, more entertainment—will seem worth the surrender of a bit more personal information, or a marginal increase in monitoring. Yet the cumulative effect of these bargains, each seemingly attractive on its own, will be the relentless destruction of privacy.”

Because we are in the midst of this transition in our attitudes to privacy, the public have contradictory attitudes to online privacy.

“Most Americans say that …they …believe the Net threatens their privacy and security. That's why they support new privacy laws” says a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

So presumably they would like something done about it, but on the other hand the same article says “Trust in government to do the right thing most of the time sank… Of all Americans, 62% want new privacy laws and protections from government snooping”, and yet “A majority of the public (54%) supports new technologies that enable the FBI to monitor suspects' e-mail”.

This ambivalence will work itself out over time. Naturally there will always be a dissenting view, but the trend is for an increasing proportion of the community to accept greater intrusions into privacy in return for greater security (among other benefits).

Which is not to say that this spells the end of privacy: even in the most communal societies there are constraints in place to preserve some level of privacy. Except in the most despotic societies, this level is set by the community through their assent, or more often through dissent when the line is crossed. The response to excesses such as the Clipper chip, attempts to restrain encryption, Australia’s attempt at a compulsory identification card, Total Information Awareness, revelations about project Echelon, and similar “initiatives” shows this.

Next time, we will examine how and why the loss of privacy does not have to mean submission to the evils of Big Brother.

1: The comment to “get over it" attributed to McNealy may have actually come from Linda Walsh, an electronic privacy activist, but the point is the same.

2: For an extreme position on rolling back privacy, see the views of David Brin: “What you can show throughout history is that openness and light has increased the freedom of people. In other words, privacy doesn't bring you freedom, it comes from freedom. But accountability is the one thing without which freedom utterly dies.” Downloaded from, now gone.

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