Can we invade our own privacy?

Published 5:38 pm Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Among the other cultural evolutions to which we are exposed, does anybody but me wonder if we will ever regret voluntarily surrendering our privacy to the internet? Remember when only a few individuals had carefully guarded glimpses into the inner workings of your life? I’m not talking about the type of isolation associated with hermits and Ebola patients, but rather, the polite distance acquaintances kept between each other. 

For example, if you lived in a town, you almost certainly would occasionally hear your next-door-neighbors screaming at each other across the easement. When the argument escalated to glass breaking, you had to wonder if you should intrude on their privacy and call the cops, or risk the guilt of a domestic homicide weighing on you for the rest of your life. 

However, the next day, when the neighbor sheepishly asked if you’d heard any commotion the previous night, the expected response was “No! we were watching TV; didn’t hear anything.” You respected people’s privacy, even if it wasn’t private. With the advent of social media, I am no longer certain where the polite borders of privacy are, or whether they even still exist. Facebook has grossly distorted the definition of the word “friend.” In the old days, friends were the few people with whom you shared family secrets, a privilege they’d earned gradually, by demonstrating they weren’t likely to repeat what you told them. 

Today, people invite me to be their “friend” on Facebook for no other reason than they know my wife. That, apparently, is an intimate enough relationship to immediately begin sharing their bathroom selfies, workplace frustrations and intimate feelings. Romance, breakups, family squabbles, political criticisms and health issues are all posted for daily consumption in the public domain. 

Despite the increase in the ways we are connected to each other by technology, I wonder if this unabashed enthusiasm for sharing deeply personal information stems from a fear of loneliness. “Connecting” to other people through the intermediary of electronic devices is a bit of oxymoron, if you think about it. Social media is highly effective at broadcasting personal news, but that’s not the same as human interaction. Face-to-face feedback is different from clicking a “like” button. I’ve never felt the comfort of a hug on Facebook, and “LOL” is a sad replacement for the magical sound of human laughter. Are there still good reasons to maintain privacy, or is the notion as obsolete as writing in cursive? While most people would agree that transparency and honesty are good qualities, there is probably a reason for the buzz-phrase “too much information.” 

Obviously, privacy is the first line of defense against identity theft. An idea that seems even riskier to me is that everything you say and every photo you post today can resurface in 10, 20 or 30 years and be quoted by the media without context. Privacy has value. At the end of the day, common sense is your best guide.