Privacy: It’s A Brave Old World


privacy then and now

My gut reaction to this Wall Street Journal story about a company that puts sensors in downtown businesses to track the whereabouts of customers for marketing purposes—They go to the gym a lot? Sell ‘em tank tops! They’re barflies? Better apply for a liquor license!—was probably the same as yours: outrage and disgust.

How dare anyone track your location without your permission? Is it even legal?

As it happens, the company that tracks customers everywhere they go is in Canada. But in the US, it’s legal for companies to collect and share customers’ location, though a bill is afoot to restrict that. Many US companies already track your movements inside their stores.

No matter what the courts decide, the fact is that Google and Apple, whose software operates smartphones, know where you are at all times. It’s just a question of what they can do with that information.

One solution is to turn off wifi. But that’s kind of beside the point.

Which is that it’s getting damn near impossible to keep anything you do or say private anymore.

It’s the nightmare everyone’s talking about, it’s Big Brother, it’s 1984, it’s the Horrifying Future it’s…it’s…

A throwback to the past. To where we’ve lived throughout most of civilization.

Example 1:

I recall in my early years as a lawyer, I tried to call Tom Forbes, a lawyer in Eureka, Kansas. I looked up his number in a phone book and gave it to the long distance operator. Instead of transferring my call, she informed me, “Mr. Forbes is at the race track,” so this ended my request. I did not ever get the satisfaction of being told this by Mr. Forbes’ office secretary. It came from the long-distance operator. That was the uniqueness of the small town, where everyone knew everyone else’s business.

–from Trials of a Small Town Lawyer, by Ervin E. Grant

Mr. Forbes never gave the long-distance operator permission to disclose his whereabouts. But the technology of the day was such that she had that information, and having it, chose to pass it on to someone who wanted it. Sound familiar?

Example 2:

Growing up I was raised in the country in Skiatook. Everything about me spelled out country girl.

Skiatook was like every other small town. Everyone knew everybody. Everyone knew everyone’s business and who you are who your momma and daddy are, and who your grandma and papa are. They knew where you lived what you drove and whether or not you went to church on Sunday. Some people thought this was a bad thing, everyone knowing your business and all.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter where you live; every small town is the same. Everyone knows everyone else’s business.

–Tobi Smith, Wagoner Tribune (Oklahoma)

It doesn’t matter where you live, all small towns are alike, and everyone knows your business.

We all came from small towns. Cities came from small towns.

This is how people lived, and live. They track one another’s whereabouts when they can, and then they spread the information around, and they lay it on thick, like cream cheese on a bagel. Sometimes the bagel gets turned into a doughnut, or a cream puff, or maybe a hot fudge sundae with an extra scoop and whipped cream and toasted almonds on top.

It’s human nature. We’re interested in other people, their whereabouts and whatabouts, whether it’s for marketing purposes or gossiping purposes.

Which doesn’t mean it’s right for a company to track your location. But it’s not a brave-new-world thing, either.

Could the internet be bringing back the small-town connectivity that the early 20th century, when people moved from their small towns to big, anonymous, disconnected cities, took away? The automobile took it away; big-city jobs far away from family and friends took it away; radio and TV and later tapes and CDs and DVDs took it away.

And the internet did too at first, when it was a new, isolating, confusing thing.

But by now there are internet communities as established and close-knit as Skiatook. With all the gossiping and feuding—and support and helpfulness—that any community offers its inhabitants.

And living in a place like the internet where everyone is connected is similar to living in a small town, where other people know your business and a lot of other things about you, whether you like it or not. Some of them use that information to try to sell you stuff—and surely small-town salesmen in days past did the same thing.

Others engage with your interests and hobbies—and maybe your business—in a way that was not possible before.

Example 3:

Shannon Ehlers lived and worked in tiny Soldier, Iowa (population approximately 300). When he was working as a traditional Chinese medicine chemist, he didn’t have a lot of industry peers anywhere near him. But he was a master of using LinkedIn to connect, and not just within chemistry circles. Shannon asked and answered lots of business questions on LinkedIn, connecting him with peers all over.

–from Small Town Rules, by Barry J. Moltz and Becky McCray

No one would argue that connecting with others by choice is a good thing—it’s a great thing, actually.

It’s when we don’t make the choice to let others to know about us that we get outraged. Just as Tom Forbes must have been, if he ever found out what the long-distance operator said.

So while you can accurately say modern technology is invading your privacy, you can also say:

Don’t like it? OK, turn off your computer and your tablet and your smart phone, quit your job, pack up, and go live in a small town far,  far away from all this infernal spying.

Except it’s not.