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Privacy, norms and politics

There are at least 500,000 cameras in the city of London, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal, which also reports that you’re recorded on average 300 times a day there. Every station has had cameras since the 1990s. Yet life hasn’t changed much.

Why not?

Life there has changed a little. Occasionally, criminals are caught because of the cameras, although Privacy International says the number of crimes solved via the cameras is "negligible." For one thing, the cameras tend to be mounted overhead, which means a baseball cap or hood is enough to keep the wrongdoer’s face invisible. On the other hand, the cameras were quite helpful in finding the subway terrorist bombers, enabling the police to track the movement of four men wearing rucksacks.

But for ordinary citizens, being on TV all day long seems to have made no difference at all. People still meet up with their adulterous lovers, still jaywalk, still pick their noses, all in public. They apparently still feel they’re in relatively private circumstances, even though their every move is recorded.


In part this points to the complexity of the notions of privacy and publicness. It turns out that privacy and publicness do not refer to one’s physical circumstances, as if what’s done behind a closed door is private and what’s done outside is public. Rather, we have quite specific norms and expectations that define the public and private. If you are arguing with your spouse while walking down the street, especially if you are keeping the volume of your voices down, it is a private argument even though it’s happening in public. People can’t come up to you on the street and take sides. If, however, you’re screaming at each other, people may well acknowledge the dispute and tell you to be quieter. If you threaten violence in the course of the yelled argument, people may entirely violate your privacy and take sides. In fact, I hope that they do. Privacy, therefore, isn’t a matter of where you are. It’s what people are allowed to hear and how they’re allowed to interact.


If privacy is what we choose to ignore, or, more exactly, the sets of norms that determine what we ignore, then the non-effect of London’s ubiquitous cameras makes more sense. With half a million cameras streaming bits, the fact that you picked your nose on the corner of Queenswood and Broad remains private, because privacy doesn’t mean that no one saw you, but that no one is allowed to acknowledge that they saw you. Seen-but-private is only a contradiction if we think that private means "unseen." But privacy is a social convention and thus more complex than that.

We should assume that we in the United States are headed in London’s direction. The stakes for stopping some types of crimes—especially those involving airplanes or plutonium—are so high that we won’t kick about the installation of TV cameras in the name of security. After all, we haven’t complained much as we’ve taken other steps away from our old ideals of privacy. And it’s not simply because we’re being frightened out of our commitment to liberty. Rather, having more of our public behavior recorded doesn’t directly affect our sense of liberty ... so long as no one pays attention to it. And with an aggressive and frightened government, there’s no telling how long that benign neglect would last.

The argument

We could argue about whether that’s good or bad. Maybe you want the government to start sending tickets to jaywalkers. Maybe it’s OK for the government to investigate every time someone who looks like an Arab hands a briefcase to someone else who looks like an Arab. I don’t think so, but maybe you do if you think it has a one in a million chance of saving a million lives. So, we’ll argue. But notice how free of principles our argument will be. It’ll do my side no good to say that we have a right to privacy because we don’t agree about how far such a principle extends. In fact, if privacy really is a matter of what we as a culture have agreed to ignore, then we’re really talking about norms, not principles. But the norms are the very things that are in flux. So we are doomed to having an argument without grounds for settlement.

The settlement

So, although privacy thus looks like a question of principle and norms, the argument inevitably will be resolved in the hurly burly, and push and shove, of politics. And that is true not just for privacy but for most of the issues that affect us as customers, businesspeople and citizens.

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