Privacy and Technology

Isaac Asimov has an interesting pre-World-Wide Web quote, “The advance of civilization is nothing but an exercise in the limiting of privacy.” Janov Pelorat in Foundation’s Edge (1982). Think about the word “civilization”. The root, civil, means to treat others well. In one ideal world, everyone would treat everyone else well for no reason. In hunter-gather societies, groups were small because groups were split when the group grew too large. At these small sizes, human abilities to track trustworthiness worked. Farming attached people to the land, making laws and people to enforce the laws necessary.

Privacy is good for the individual. Eliminating privacy is good for the state. Both claim their point of view is good for society. Both are right. A state with too much ability to see into the lives of  individuals will eventually abuse that power to mistreat its citizens. A state with too little ability to see into the lives of individuals will be too blind to protect citizens from mistreatment by criminals. During times of war, people want the state to protect them and the refrain, “Innocent people have nothing to hide,” gets resurrected. During times of peace, people want the state to leave them alone. It has everything to do with trust. When people no longer trust each other, they turn to the state. When people can trust each other, they stop trusting the state.

Ah. Oversimplification

As technology improves, we gain access to tools which allow us to do more with less effort. With information technology, this means we can gather more and accurate information. At the same time, it means less privacy for us.

Part of my work is to provide evidence to deans, department heads, and instructors about student online behavior. Students would be surprised at how much I can find about what they did in our system. Of course, the campus administrations would like us to be able to know everything about what the students and instructors are doing. To get the same in the bricks-and-mortar parts of campus, cameras and microphone would record and store all the audio and video for every classroom and office.

from Rants, Raves, and Rhetoric v4

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