Another “end of privacy” story

August 27, 2015 |

The combination of being topical, mildly controversial and somewhat witty usually means a time poor journalist will often abandon too much in the way of analysis when doing an opinion piece on a recent event.  The Age’s article today titled When privacy goes out the window and into the Twitterverse handsomely illustrates that very point.  Glib and superficial are its strong points. As a bit of analysis it is woeful but fairly typical of the thrown together brand of twee analysis

It provides:

Earlier this week you may have caught wind of an infectious, this-is-what-we’ve-become type of story. It involved an aeroplane passenger who live-tweeted the break-up of a couple sitting near her.

“This guy on the plane just broke up with his girlfriend and she’s SOBBING,” broadcast New Yorker Kelly Keegs? from her smartphone, with a side-on pic of the unhappy pair. With the plane delayed on the tarmac, Keegs reported the fight, blow by blow: “I can’t stand you,” he says. “Are you trying to slow fade me OUT? Just like the others?” she says. Every plot twist left the Twitterverse gasping: the mention of a mystery woman, “Charlotte”, the “silent sobs, lots of sniffling” and the shocking denouement – after take-off the couple ordered six Bloody Marys and began “making out”.

In this age of full transparency, it’s a given that what plays out in the real world doubles as content in the virtual one. 

The hashtag #PlaneBreakUp went viral. The story splashed into the mainstream media, creating its own weather pattern, the lovers’ tiff disseminated to millions of strangers, every element of the quarrel, and its real-time capture, endlessly dissected and analysed.

It seems a surprising number of people used their real name, email address, credit card details and billing address when signing up for Ashley Madison. Photo: AP

At the time of writing, the feuding couple have not surfaced to express outrage about their involuntary celebrity; Keegs has not been sued and none of that’s surprising. When it comes to notions of privacy, the ground hasn’t just shifted beneath us – it’s fallen away. Though as recent events show, there’s a cost that goes beyond mere lapses in decorum.

The idea that some of the business of being human might be too intimate for public view is almost an anachronism.

This is twaddle to the extent that it means anything.  Some of the business of being human is done in private, out of public view.  Even some of the business of being human is not open to widespread public view.  A fight “in public” may be viewed by one or two bystanders for a moment.  But it has always been thus.  Without a recording device it won’t be open to a broader view.

The couple, after all, argued loudly on a plane in the same way we talk loudly on our mobiles in a crowded tram, post photos of ourselves drunk or grief-stricken on Facebook, and essentially package our lives as soap operas for popular consumption.

Something of an exageration.  It is certainly not a general state of affairs.  Some do, some don’t.  The packaging is not for popular consumption generally.  It is for consumption, if that is the right word, for those who are part of a select group, even if the group is large.

We’ve become habituated to baring our innermost thoughts, parading our dirty laundry and expecting to see others similarly naked – that’s why Keegs attracted relatively little criticism for turning strangers into mass entertainment.

The hanging out of dirty laundry has been around as long as there has been a means of transmitting that information.  But is it right that people are less inhibited now than it has been in that past.  As to the relatively little critisism, could it be because it is barely journalism and barely warrants acknowledgment let along criticisism.

And in this age of full transparency, it’s a given that what plays out in the real world doubles as content in the virtual one.

Really?  There are those places and people who don’t buy into this rule.

The reverse can also hold: a lack of inhibition in the digital realm loosens or even re-engineers mores in the real one. This is where things get fascinating. Even a few years ago “hooking up” referred to the random coupling at parties where beer goggles enabled fast friendships. Now, apps such as Tinder, which locate eligible partners in the vicinity, and its racier versions, facilitate the sober, premeditated and geographically convenient hook-up.

In a similar vein, what’s striking about the scandal of cheating website Ashley Madison – aside from the tragic consequences for some individuals – is the way it upends our understanding of infidelity. It’s now harder to view adultery as a hazard associated with business trips and long hours at the office: the site’s 33 million users have exposed how much cheating in our digital age is less an accident of circumstance than a matter of design.

Personal ads have always been with us.  It is the technology that has changed, not the desire.  A change of means of contact does not constitute a change of personal mores.

To state the obvious: in pursuing illicit relationships, which depend on discretion, the would-be cheaters were shockingly indiscreet, broadcasting their intention to cheat on a digital pinboard.

Not so much indiscreet as in trusting of the protections of what was supposedly a secure site.  That is the nub of it.

And so we witnessed the sad irony of people cavalier about their own privacy falling victim to the hackers who treat privacy with contempt.

The premise is wrong.  As I understand it the site was supposed to be secure and discrete.  In that context there was an expectation of privacy from the broader community.

The media coverage of the story compounded the damage: lists of the “top 10 cheating suburbs” in every state (I could almost hear the news editors salivating); maps of cheating “hot spots”; revelations that there are 25 Ashley Madison accounts registered to Victoria’s French Island, despite it having a population of just 116 – which might have prompted some painful and potentially cataclysmic conversations in French Island households.

The coverage has been easy coverage of the most prurient kind.

Last week two commercial radio hosts told a woman live on air that her husband has an account with the website: “I don’t know if we should have done that,” said one of the hosts, remorseful after the fact. Meanwhile, a tabloid reported that a political figure, already under a cloud because of an unrelated scandal, also had his work email address found in the leaked database from the site. It was a “bad day” for the bloke, the paper deadpanned.

While I might criticise some of these breaches of others’ privacy – whether at the hands of the media or a bored aeroplane passenger with a smartphone – this has to be weighed against the new inconsequence that defines public exposure.

Again another gross exageration and assumption.

When everyone’s blemishes are shown in full light, individual flaws start to blur.

Another wild eyed assertion.  Privacy is that of the individual.  Someone’s blemishes on show, even if found amongst meany does not go to one’s expectation of privacy.

Today’s public outing or confession will soon be forgotten as another day of purging dawns.

Wrong.  Today’s public outing is there forever on the internet.  People still remember.

So, for all the downsides and pitfalls of the new intrusiveness, I don’t want to go back to the era when a veil of secrecy divided public from private and people (read men) with wholesome reputations to protect didn’t deserve them.

Again, silly analysis.  The new intrusiveness that the writer refers to involves data breaches or intrusive photography.  Holding out the excuse that exposing hypocrisy justifies all forms of ill is simply wrong as a matter of public policy and at law.

Good riddance to that sort of privacy.

Wrong and, of course, very much a journalists take on justifying hacking phones, computers and jumping over fences if the need arises.  Hack a site and expose the moral wrongdoers.  What is wrong with that statement!

(One of the more satisfying revelations from the Ashley Madison hack is that US family values campaigner Josh Duggar, formerstar of reality TV show 19 Kids and Counting, subscribed to the site and got what he paid for.)

Yet we’re also more vulnerable now: to governments that exploit our blase attitude to personal information to pass laws enabling mass digital surveillance, and to corporations that exploit our unguarded selves for profit.



One Response to “Another “end of privacy” story”

  1. me

    Sensational work Peter !

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