Privacy: Privilege or Right?

Nicholas Carr, my favorite information technology skeptic, has written a great post on privacy with respect to the Gmail security breach and Facebook’s “enhanced” privacy options:

For a public figure to say “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” is, at the most practical of levels, incredibly rash. You’re essentially extending an open invitation to reporters to publish anything about your life that they can uncover. (Ask Gary Hart.) The statement also paints Schmidt as a hypocrite. In 2005, he threw a legendary hissy fit when CNET’s Elinor Mills, in an article about privacy, published some details about his residence, his finances, and his politics that she had uncovered through Google searches. Google infamously cut off all contact with CNET for a couple of months. Schmidt didn’t seem so casual about the value of privacy when his own was at stake.

The China-based cyber attack, which apparently came to Google’s attention just a few days after the CNBC interview, makes Schmidt’s remarks about privacy and deferring to “the authorities” seem not just foolhardy but reprehensible. When the news reached Schmidt that some Gmail accounts had been compromised, perhaps endangering Chinese dissidents, did he shrug his shoulders and say, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”? Did he say that Gmail customers need to understand that sometimes “the authorities” will have access to their messages? Judging by Google’s reaction to the attack, it takes the privacy of its own networks extremely seriously - as well it should. The next time Schmidt is asked about privacy, he should remember that.

I’ve long been aware that Google and Facebook’s best interests do not entirely align with my own, but I was most intrigued by his concept of the “personal Green Zone”:

If you exist within a personal Green Zone of private jets, fenced off hideaways, and firewalls maintained by the country’s best law firms and PR agencies, it’s hardly a surprise that you’d eventually come to see privacy more as a privilege than a right.

When people like Schmidt insinuate that privacy doesn’t exist I think they’re arguing in good faith, because in their personal experience this is surely true. A high profile, celebrity CEO is going to have a tough time maintaining much privacy. It comes with the territory. Someone in his shoes can’t even answer his own doorbell for fear of being kidnapped or mugged. (This almost happened to Warren Buffett’s wife.)

Privacy is indeed a luxury, whether or not it ought to be. I once worked at company where every year the president/owner threw a nice holiday party at the local country club for the entire company. Toward the end of the evening he would give a blathering speech about how “it was a very good year” and then call each employee forward to shake his hand and give him a bonus check. Reading the addresses on the envelopes, he’d invariably butcher the names of the Southeast Asians who worked in the factory. “Fu-WONG En-GOO-yen…” No one would get up, so he’d read the next name. “Moo-WOY TRAIN… hmm, same address… they must be brothers!” These IT tycoons are hardly aware of how the poor live, and they build their lives around avoiding as many people as possible who aren’t of their own economic class. Hollywood elites and Paris Hilton excepted, many of the richest people are also the most “private.” Products and services aimed at the rich are usually marketed as exclusive or private.

I understand privacy in Aristotelian terms, as a mean between the extremes of The Truman Show and The Invisible Man. We all have a natural need for some level of privacy, but one the most obvious ways wealth divides people is by fostering excessive privacy. Given the opportunity most people seek to shelter themselves from the pains of this world, but it’s easy to go to far and insulate ourselves with indifference to the point of obliviousness, as these corporate leaders demonstrate.