The naked truth about privacy

Monday 14 February 2011

(A shorter version of this article appeared in the Independent on Sunday, 13 February 2011)

Towards the end of last year, a reporter on a large-circulation newspaper called to ask questions about my private life. I told him I don’t talk to journalists about such things, forbearing to mention that I had answered my mobile in the changing room of my gym and happened to be stark naked at the time. It’s hard to think of a more apt metaphor for the notion that we’re all supposed to go through life stripped bare these days.

Privacy is dead, or at least out of date. So claimed the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, when he argued last year that the rise of social networking means it’s no longer ‘a social norm’. Hardly more than a year on, Zuckerberg has had a change of heart, going to court to get a restraining order against a fan who bombarded him with emails, sent flowers and eventually turned up at his house in Palo Alto, California. Under the terms of the order, 31-year-old Pradeep Manukonda cannot go within 300 yards of Zuckerberg, his girlfriend or his sister.

Zuckerberg’s court action to protect himself and his family follows a series of rows about settings on Facebook. Last year the site was accused of complacency about its responsibility to protect users against paedophiles after a serial rapist, Peter Chapman, was convicted of the murder of a 17-year-old girl he met while posing as a teenage boy on Facebook. The ease with which personal information can be accessed has shocked some users, who seem not to have realised it might be visible to parents, employers and even sexual predators.

While this may be a naïve but understandable mistake on the part of a teenager, it’s hard to comprehend what was going on in the mind of a married Republican Congressman, 46-year-old Chris Lee, when he answered a post on the Craigslist website. Lee posed as a 39-year-old single man and as if that were not sufficient evidence of recklessness, he also sent a photograph of himself stripped to the waist to a woman he met through the site, assuring her that he was a ‘fit fun classy guy’. The woman recognised Lee and revealed the correspondence on, inevitably, another website. Last week, Lee resigned his seat in Congress.

There is no limit on these despatches from the privacy wars. The American singer Katy Perry has denied that her three-month marriage to the British celebrity Russell Brand is in trouble but his decision to tweet an unflattering photograph of her, apparently taken in the marital bed, hardly seems a recipe for connubial bliss. Another Katie, this time the much-photographed Ms Price, is said to be divorcing her second husband Alex Reid, complaining without irony that he became ‘fame-hungry’ during their brief marriage. Meanwhile WikiLeaks is threatening to sue over a new book which attributes eccentric personal behaviour to its founder, the transparency campaigner Julian Assange.

Common themes emerge from these anecdotes. One is a blurring of boundaries, so that no one seems quite sure any longer what’s in the public domain or whether it belongs there. There is widespread ambiguity, and sometimes outright scorn, towards people who complain that their privacy has been breached; this is especially true of public figures, such as politicians and actors, and it may offer a partial explanation for the unconscionable delay in setting up a serious police investigation into alleged phone hacking by journalists at the News of the World.

A substantial section of the public appears to take the view that politicians such as the former deputy prime minister, Lord Prescott, who was told last week about ‘significant new evidence’ that his voicemails might have been listened to, don’t have the same rights as private individuals. When pressed, an extraordinary number of people seem to define the limits of privacy in the crudest possible terms as ‘anything to do with me’, raising the question of double standards.

Zuckerberg’s discovery that abandoning the notion of privacy may lead to stalking isn’t the only example of a rethink born out of personal experience. WikiLeaks’ initial revelations included a diplomatic cable accusing a Labour minister in the last Government of being ‘a bit of a hound dog’ around women; such tittle-tattle is of a different order from exposing behind-the-scenes attitudes of Arab leaders towards Iran, and the fact that the man’s name was redacted led to other former ministers being unjustly accused. Against that background, few moments in recent broadcasting history can compare for hilarity with Assange’s assertion during a testy interview with John Humphrys in December that he is a ‘gentleman’ who doesn’t talk about his sexual habits.

In a society where everything is out in the open, anyone who chooses not to place details of their personal life in the public domain is regarded with suspicion. Reticence has lost all value and in its place is a brutal assumption that every transaction between human beings should be open to public scrutiny, even when there is no question of wrongdoing. Some commentators have suggested that any public figure who assumes that emails or phone calls are private is out of touch with reality, a form of blaming the victim familiar from rape trials.

This is not the first time in history when the boundary between public and private has shifted. But a conjunction of discrete phenomena – technology, celebrity, a political culture of extreme distrust – has created an unprecedented assault on the concept of privacy. There is an irony here: if we accept that our emails are being read, our phone calls hacked into, and our private information spread across the internet with or without our consent, we are edging closer to the surveillance society which was George Orwell’s nightmare in 1984. The difference is that in 2011 Big Brother has been privatised, his functions contracted out to hackers, websites, ‘reality’ TV shows and gossip columns.

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