Report: Definition of ‘Privacy’ Evolving

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In a new paper from Pew, experts warn that surveillance-free spaces are disappearing.

When living a public life becomes the new default, what does privacy even mean?

That's one of the central questions in a new report about the future of privacy from Pew Research Center, which collected the opinions of more than 2,500 experts in computer programming, engineering, publishing, data science, and related fields.

Some respondents told Pew they are confident that policymakers will, in the next decade, establish privacy rights that protect individuals from government and corporate surveillance. (In the United States, there are practically no protections for individuals against the companies and governments that track them.) But many others are pessimistic about the possibility that such a framework might come about in the next 10 years ago—or ever.

Experts agreed, though, that our expectations about personal privacy are changing dramatically. While privacy once generally meant, "I assume no one is looking," as one respondent put it, the public is beginning to accept the opposite: that someone usually is. And whether or not people accept it, that new normal—public life and mass surveillance as a default—will become a component of the ever-widening socioeconomic divide.

Privacy as we know it today will become a luxury commodity. Opting out will be for the rich. To some extent that's already true. Consider the supermarkets that require you to fill out an application—including your name, address, phone number, and so on—in order to get a rewards card that unlocks coupons. Here's what Kate Crawford, a researcher who focuses on ethics in the age of big data, told Pew:

In the next 10 years, I would expect to see the development of more encryption technologies and boutique services for people prepared to pay a premium for greater control over their data. This is the creation of privacy as a luxury good. It also has the unfortunate effect of establishing a new divide: the privacy rich and the privacy poor. Whether genuine control over your information will be extended to the majority of people—and for free—seems very unlikely, without a much stronger policy commitment.

And there's little incentive for the entities that benefit from a breakdown in privacy to change the way they operate. In order to get more robust privacy protections—like terms of service agreements that are actually readable to non-lawyers, or rules that let people review the personal information that data brokers collect about them—many experts agree that individuals will have to demand them. But even that may not work.

Where there's tension between convenience and privacy, individuals are already primed to give up their right to be left alone. For instance, consider the Facebook user who feels uneasy about the site's interest in her personal data but determines quitting isn't an option because she'd be giving up the easiest way to stay in touch with friends and family.

That mentality is changing the way people think about their rights in the first place.     

“By 2025, many of the issues, behaviors, and information we consider to be private today will not be so," said Homero Gil de Zuniga, director of the Digital Media Research Program at the University of Texas-Austin, in the Pew report. "Information will be even more pervasive, even more liquid, and portable. The digital private sphere, as well as the digital public sphere, will most likely completely overlap.”

In other words, the conveniences of the modern world will likely dictate privacy norms. This is already happening all around us. As the media critic Mark Andrejevic points out to Pew, many people today treat email as though it's equivalent to a private face-to-face conversation. It is not.

"We will continue to act as if we have what we once called ‘privacy,’" Andrejevic told Pew, "but we will know, on some level, that much of what we do is recorded, captured, and retrievable, and even further, that this information will provide comprehensive clues about aspects of our lives that we imagined to be somehow exempt from data collection."

"We are embarked, irreversibly, I suspect, upon a trajectory toward a world in which those spaces, times, and spheres of activity free from data collection and monitoring will, for all practical purposes, disappear."

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