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Privacy, Liberty’s Precondition

Liberty does not grow in every soil. Certain preconditions are necessary for freedom to flourish. Privacy is one of these necessary preconditions. Without the ability to live a life separate from unreasonable intrusions of the external world, freedom is illusory.

But what is privacy?

There is no way around the fact that most people willfully give up their privacy in exchange for convenience, acceptance, and connection. People are not required to post their location online. No one is forced to post endless selfies that can then be analyzed by facial recognition software powered by AI.

Currently, most people willfully abandon privacy in exchange for easily navigating daily life. Paradoxically, although coercion is rarely involved, consent is hardly enthusiastic. This is because the privacy problem faced by Americans today was decades in the making.

The modern lifestyle was made possible by a philosophical movement that predated the birth of the first millennial.

This movement is characterized by those who seek meaning in life through technological innovation. It is a world created by what the great cultural critic Neil Postman described as the “information junkie.” According to Postman, the information junkie gives little thought to the past or metaphysical purpose. Instead, he seeks only to make diverse information as accessible as possible at instantaneous speed.

Postman’s insight was published in 1999. Today, we live in a world created by information junkies, and it is a world that values fragmented, decontextualized information, generated at lightning speed, made available to anyone within seconds.

Unfortunately, context, purpose, and privacy are often left behind as the “information superhighway” creates infrastructure designed for speed and accessibility over intentional action.

Individual control was the price society paid to create the world we now inhabit.

Practically speaking, this has created a cultural environment where people have almost no control over the user agreements that govern how private information is collected, stored, and used. Digital incentive structures value speed and virality while relying on large databases that are centrally managed.

Large corporate entities control highly sensitive information and cyber breaches impact millions.

Threats to privacy are so ubiquitous that people have become numb to the risk. In 2014, a breach of Yahoo, impacted half a billion individual users. Apathetically, individuals allow the corporations they decry to scan through their emails, gathering data points for targeted advertising. Social media users do not think twice before accepting terms and conditions they do not fully understand.

Yahoo is one of many examples of companies with millions of users with much to lose in the event of a data breach. Google, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and hundreds of other platforms manage personal content and information associated with thousands of people.

The problem of killing privacy is coming into public consciousness.

Americans are showing a growing concern with the lack of privacy in modern life. A recent Pew Research Center survey shows many Americans believe it is impossible to navigate daily life without being tracked. Despite believing tracking is inherent to life, Americans believe the risks of personal data collection outweigh the benefits.

What, if anything, can be done to work towards a future where privacy is secured rather than traded for participation in daily life?

Yochai Benkler, Faculty Co-Director at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, suggested a decentralized system of information.

This system would rely on open-source software and would give users, not companies, control of the system. Decentralized at-home email storage would make large scale breaches, such as the 2014 Yahoo debacle, virtually impossible.

However, Benkler acknowledged a cultural change in how individuals value privacy is necessary to make sustainable changes.

Simply put, absent significant changes in cultural values, the modern man will be trapped on the hamster wheel of data mining and algorithmic manipulation. Policy makers and average Americans should take note of this reality and work towards a world that values privacy. The future of liberty depends on these efforts.