Yin YangThe Yin and Yang of Privacy and Transparency

Categories: Privacy
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Published on: December 28, 2012

Transparency and Privacy: the Yin Yang of Our Age ()

Yin Yang

“May you live in interesting times.” – Ancient Chinese curse

There has never been a time in history where so many people have had so much access to so much information as right now. Entire encyclopedias, vastly more expansive than twenty printed volumes, are now easily and freely available on the Internet, and through wikis they are constantly being updated and refreshed. Gigantic databases catalog every actor, director, writer, and more involved in every piece of film made or even in the works, and again can be freely accessed by us all. And an endless army of bloggers fill the Internet with their observations, opinions, beliefs, yearnings, and experiences.

It all sounds great, but there is a problem. More information about everything means more information about you and me. And that is making more than a few people uncomfortable. In this post, I, a humble member of the army of bloggers, want to take a look at the modern yin yang of transparency and privacy.

A Case for Transparency

This ability to peer deep into the inner workings of the organizations that have so much influence over our lives has its advantages. Of course I’m talking about our government, but more than that, too. It gets harder and harder for corruption, prejudice, and conspiracy to exist in institutions like the police, military, charity organizations, public programs, the media, public and, increasingly, even private companies. A single leaked document or hidden video can go viral so quickly and so devastatingly fast, and as we’ve seen can change the course of history.

In a democracy, the more transparent the political process is, the better the informed decisions that the people can make when the vote. In our financial system, the more transparent the system is, the better we can decide where to invest our money. It seems the case is clear.

The Case for Privacy

But is it clear? Certainly, every person has to go out and interact with the rest of the world, but does the rest of the world have the right to come into the individual’s home? That is a deeper question because the right to have some privacy seems to negate the argument above. It seems natural for each of us to have inner and outer circles with which we associate, and the line that divides those circles is up to each of us to define. Now, with the Internet it is getting harder to keep the line or even to define it.

Sure, a video that exposes a corrupt government program funded by taxpayer dollars is one thing. But what about the individuals that worked for that program? And what about things that go beyond where they work, such as what they do on the weekend or at home? Is it right that the public should know about them having a few drinks at a party? Or that one of their children is pregnant before getting married? Or that they’re having marital difficulties?

I know that things that go on at home necessarily have an effect, to some degree, on what goes on at work or in public. But should someone be judged by their private activities? Should they be called to explain them or account for them?

Can we have both?

That is the big question. Can we set policies and laws to define exactly what you get to keep private and what we all get to know? I mentioned above that each of us right now has the privilege of defining that line for themselves. Some people may be quite content sharing their innermost thoughts and relationship statuses on social media, others don’t think you should even ask how old they are, or where they are living now, etc.

The power and presence of the Internet is forcing a conflict, it seems, where someone has to decide where you are allowed to draw the line. If you think about it, you’re already not allowed to claim some things as private. If you commit a crime, you can’t say the courts and police are invading your privacy by catching you at it. But what if you are suspected of committing a crime? And what if you expand that and admit that anyone can be suspected of committing one crime or the other: be it cheating on taxes, running a red light, or orchestrating a scam to bilk millions of dollars from innocent people. If that is true, and I believe it is, then do we have a right to call some things private?

The questions is too big for me to answer here, but I’d like to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment below if you have an opinion.

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