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NEXT: Does Privacy have a future?

David Staley David Staley NEXT: Does Privacy have a future?
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Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle describes a near-term future where the desire for privacy marks one as a sociopath. In the world Eggers describes, ubiquitous cameras, social media and other surveillance technologies mean that every action is observable by everyone on earth. Initially, wearable cameras that record a person’s every action are placed around politician’s necks, so that the public might see who they are meeting, what deals they are making, and thus hold politicians to a high degree of accountability. Any politician who refuses to wear the camera is immediately suspect: “What are they hiding?” asks a skeptical public. These cameras and other technologies spread throughout the population, such that anyone seeking privacy “must have something to hide” or is displaying anti-social behavior. In the future world Eggers describes, privacy evaporates not only because of technology run rampant, but because seeking privacy is considered a pathology.

But this is only one scenario for the future of privacy. I can imagine a scenario where privacy becomes uncool. Think of our selfie culture, where surveillance becomes a mark of personal celebrity, and exposing ourselves to the public — think about times you’ve read too-much-information shared over social networks — is valued more than privacy. To be anonymous, to be alone or to shy away from the lights of our own personal camera phones marks one as “unlike the cool kids.” We often think of surveillance as an imposition from Orwellian governments or ruthless corporations, but as our contemporary culture demonstrates every day, surveillance is frequently self-imposed. Will the narcissism of personal surveillance overwhelm the desire for privacy?

It is possible that in the near future, privacy will become a luxury. In a world where surveillance technologies proliferate, only the wealthy and well-connected will be able to carve out for themselves a space for privacy. In the same way the Panama Papers have revealed strategies by which the super-wealth shield their money from tax collection, perhaps only the super-rich will permit themselves the luxury of privacy, or indeed will be the only ones with the resources and wherewithal to defeat surveillance technologies. Privacy will become another means to demark wealth, power, status and privilege.

In the future, privacy may become illegal. In a world conditioned by post 9/11 security considerations, and even after the Edward Snowden and Wikileaks revelations, there could be a scenario where the desire for privacy is considered suspicious behavior. The assumption may be that anyone who wishes to evade surveillance must be doing so to mask criminal behavior, and thus privacy is criminalized. In this scenario, law enforcement and the courts reduce the space for personal privacy until it vanishes.

It is also possible that privacy will be widely recognized as a fundamental human right. Tired of constant monitoring by public cameras, fed up with giving away online data as a condition for downloading any app, coming to our senses about how much of our personal lives we broadcast to the world, there is a societal shift that reasserts privacy as a foundational right, the right from which all other rights are built upon. In this scenario, the Supreme Court and other international legal entities assert an individual’s “right to be anonymous,” and the UN declares an international Year of Privacy. Human Rights Watch and other NGOs monitor the status of privacy around the world, advocating on behalf of those whose privacy is under threat.

Technology and those who control it will not be the sole determinate for the future of privacy. Social mood will play a pivotal role. Will we as a society value privacy enough to practice it, let alone defend it? Will the need for security or celebrity determine the boundaries of the private? Will we collectively decide that we value the right to be left alone?

David Staley is president of Columbus Futurists and a professor of history and design at The Ohio State University.  

The next Columbus Futurists monthly forum will be Thursday April 21 at 6:30 PM at the Panera Bread community room (875 Bethel Rd.)  Our topic for the evening will be “Does Privacy have a Future?”

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