Privacy and Power

Privacy and Power - cartoon people with cameras for heads surveilling one another

Two weeks ago I wrote about the relationship between privacy and power, and how may of today’s spokespeople for the oppressed focus more on stopping surveillance in the name of privacy than daring to call for surveillance of oppressors, or imagine ways that surveillance could be used to create a world devoid of oppression. Since then, I have been thinking a lot about our current obsession with privacy.

In The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind, Michio Kaku writes about how humanity has essentially attained the power of telepathy. For every situation that Kaku posits would benefit from telepathy—a person suffering from ALS, a soldier immobilized on the battlefield—he suggests another way that these powers can be abused, and posits technical safeguards against such abuses. He does admit, however, that any system that has been built can be broken into. What I care about, however, is what makes people want to break into a system? And what kind of system makes people want to keep others out?

In 2012, I was hired by Capital One Bank to lecture their employees on how to keep their professional digital correspondences professional, and on the importance of keeping their ‘private’ social-media lives private. Recently, I’ve been facilitating a creative writing workshop for formerly homeless women via the New York Writer’s Coalition (NYWC). My role in the workshop may be to prompt people to write ‘fiction,’ but in reality prompts people to write and share stories about their lives 99% of the time. Not surprisingly, my current job prompting people to divulge personal information is much easier than my previous job convincing people to keep quiet.

In social situations largely devoid of immediately oppressive power dynamics—like my writing workshop, and how many people conceive of their social networks on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—people are not just willing to reveal intimate details about themselves; one might argue that such revelations are the main point of these communication. NYWC actually goes out of its way to guard the privacy of its workshops’ participants. The official policy of NYWC, and a mantra we facilitators repeat every class, is that everything written is fictional, even when it is obvious that this is false. So far, in the few months that I’ve lead workshops, I’ve had zero instances in which somebody has seemed at all perturbed by a privacy violation. Rather, every week, I battle the urge for workshop participants to spend excess time revealing additional juicy details to their audience.

For example, my first day in the field at NYWC entailed observing a workshop for formerly incarcerated women at a state-mandated living facility. The facilitator asked the participants to introduce themselves and say why they were present. I knew the facilitator meant ‘present’ at the workshop, but wasn’t particularly surprised when the first participant told everybody her name, then added that she was in the facility due to drug trafficking and assault with a deadly weapon. The facilitator was quite embarrassed and explained her intention, to which the participant replied, “it’s okay, I wanted him to know that,” referring to me. Afterwards, with the facilitator’s intentions abundantly clear, more than half the women present introduced themselves by divulging the charges they’d been convicted on. For them, this was not a privacy violation, but a therapeutic revelation.

My sociology students at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), on the other hand, have a much harder time admitting their wrongdoings. The first writing I assign them is to analyze the power dynamics of one situation in which they were the victims of oppression, and one situation in which they were the agents of oppression. If I don’t make it clear that they will fail the assignment if they do not address both aspects—as I failed to do my first semester teaching—almost every student will readily go into great detail about having been victimized, but will refuse to even address a situation in which they were the agent of oppression. Even after I tell them that being the agent of oppression can be anything from hitting one’s little sibling, to wearing clothing made by child laborers in South Asia, many students still blow off the second part with statements like, ‘I’ve never oppressed anybody.’

The obvious difference between my college students and my workshop participants is that I hold the power of the grade over my students; whereas I have no direct institutional power over my workshop participants. My college students must navigate the waters between not doing the assignment and admitting to being imperfect. Many put their pride aside for the sake of completing the assignment; many, however, choose to crash their ships rather than admit they could possibly sink—which conveniently requires only a one-sentence response.

Altogether, the people I encounter every day seem less concerned with the ideal of privacy than the opportunity to share their thoughts and experiences with others. But more than anything, they seem concerned with getting good grades, getting good jobs, keeping their lights on, and keeping their refrigerators full. If meeting these biological necessities entails keeping quiet about their experiences and suppressing their feelings, they are willing to do so—some more than others. But these demands put upon the oppressed by those who wield power over them should never be mistaken for their authentic ideals.

It’s not that people don’t want others to know what they’ve eaten, who they’ve slept with, and what music they like. It’s that they’re afraid of being judged by people who possess institutional power over them. When people invoke privacy as a tautological good, perhaps more relevant than asking, “what are you hiding?” would be to ask, “from whom are you trying to hide?”

– Fritz Tucker, Zeteo Contributor

Image is an illustration by Ben Jennings, from The power to intrude, by Joshua Rozenberg, Prospect Magazine, UK, February 2016.

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