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BY GARY GROSSMAN
In 1806, Noah Webster published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. Included in the 5,000-plus word volume, the first dictionary in America, was the word Privacy. Webster then defined it as privateness, n. secrecy, privity, retreat.1
Today, privacy is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as (n) a: the quality or state of being apart from company or observation; b: freedom from unauthorized intrusion.2
Will the word “privacy” have similar—or any—meaning in the future, perhaps even the near future? Will it be retired from the dictionary as being archaic: of, relating to, or characteristic of an earlier or more primitive time.3
Privacy is, in fact, vanishing. It’s disappearing with our online purchases, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram posts and all our unencrypted email and text transmissions. The word loses definition as our daily lives become more transparent.
Domestic and foreign hackers create both havoc and commerce through the discovery and exploitation of our identities. Organized crime and nation-sponsored trolls engage in data mining for political or financial benefit. The downstream impact of social media on “legacy news organizations” means ethical decisions such as the need for reportage vs. an individual’s right to privacy will be debated on journalistic quicksand with no firm footing. At the same time, alternative fringe media, as evidenced in the 2016 presidential campaign, will ignore privacy in the same manner it ignores facts.
Thanks to both technology (computers, drones, recorders, etc.) and a never-flagging interest—for many reasons, worthwhile or not—in the attributes and behaviors of other human beings and themselves, there seems to be an ever-increasing lack of concern about privacy.
Reduced to statistics, privacy is a concept that is growing old with the population. According to a 2016 Gallup Poll, Millennials, a generation that has always been connected with smartphones and apps, computers and the Internet, have lower expectations about their privacy than their parents. In comparison, older demographics—Traditionalists—have the least amount of trust that their privacy is secure.
As a television producer, journalist, and author, I have real-time tools at hand to access a wealth of private and public records. Some services, like Spokeo and LexisNexis, are fee-based. Others, including Facebook and LinkedIn, are free. All provide routes to personal information and the ability to uncover deep private details. However, as researchers, whenever we seek someone else’s information, we put more of ourselves out into cyberspace. It’s the accepted new norm.
TechNewsWorld considered this paradigm shift in a 2014 article titled "Experts Forecast the End of Privacy as We Know It." Lee Rainie, Pew Research Center’s Director of Internet, Science and Technology Research, noted, "Privacy is an activity to be achieved in havens or in special circumstances with lots of efforts." Accepting the notion that we increasingly live in a fish bowl, Rainie concluded, "The default condition of humans in the post-industrial world is you’re in public all the time."5
Computer World contributing columnist Evan Schuman maintained in his October, 2016 story “Does Privacy Exist Anymore? Just Barely,” that data in existence on the Internet or in the Cloud is data to be used. “It will be accessed and logged and stored and compared with a billion [other] pieces of data.”6
The areas of our lives that we considered private 10 or 20 years ago no longer are. Moreover, the very notion of constitutional guarantees on our privacy is, contrary to public belief, not explicitly stated in the Bill of Rights of the U. S. Constitution. Although some vestiges of privacy restrictions still exist in some governmental data bases, they are tempting targets for an increasing number of data miners—including those whose goals may transcend simple partisan politics or economic gain.
Russell Shanks, University of California, Los Angeles librarian explained in his article “Privacy: History, Legal, Social and Ethical Aspects," that “The Bill of Rights does not tend to enhance the privacy of individuals, but its provisions are directed at outlawing specific acts in which a government might engage that are deemed anathema to the republic in which we live.”7
It wasn’t until 1965 that the U. S. Supreme Court found constitutional precedent for protecting the right of privacy and nine years later Congress enacted The Privacy Act of 1974 which underscored certain rights to “pursuing and obtaining safety, and happiness, and privacy.”8
For journalists, the issue continues to come down to the age-old dilemma: how to balance violating a subject’s privacy with the public’s right to know?
A 2016 Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation article titled “Privacy and Reporting on People’s Lives” reiterated the established ethical tenet.“ When journalists consider reporting on the personal life of someone who does not already live in the public eye, a careful consideration of both the news value of the disclosures and the potential harm those disclosures might cause can serve as guide.”9
However, journalistic tradition means little when people so willingly reveal their lives to the world in an open Facebook. Even if they personally don’t disclose private information, online friends might, revealing employers, schools, location, race, gender, buying habits, or even more intimate details and potentially embarrassing photographs. Once online, content is there for anyone to glean, particularly corporations and sales agents, let alone governments, journalists, and criminals.
Case in point: As reported by Steve Lohr in The New York Times in “How Privacy Vanishes Online,”10 several years ago two students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology analyzed more than 4,000 Facebook profiles of students and associated links to others mentioned in these profiles. Using this information, they were able to predict with 78% accuracy whether a profile belonged to a gay male.
“Even more unnerving to privacy advocates,” wrote Lohr, is the work of two researchers from Carnegie Mellon University who tapped into publicly accessible content, including social media profiles. The Carnegie Mellon team reported that they could accurately predict the full nine-digit Social Security numbers for nearly five million individuals, representing 8.5% of the people born in the United States between 1989 and 2003.
“We know privacy is under attack,” author Simson Garfinkel contended in his book Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century. “The problem is we don’t know how to fight back.”11
The fight requires more effort and knowledge than most people have at their disposal. It also requires the will to fight.
“It’s not about the man who wants to watch pornography in complete anonymity over the Internet,” wrote Garfinkel. “It’s about the woman who’s afraid to use the Internet to organize her community against a proposed toxic dump—afraid because the dump’s investors are sure to dig through her past if she becomes too much of a nuisance.”
A 2015 Pew Research Center study indicates that 84% of Americans now go on line, with the highest usage linked to the 18-29 demographic. The pool of information can form distinct social footprints, whether or not the information is entirely true.12
And there’s the rub.
As Alfred Hermida, Associate Professor in the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism argued, “The development of social networks for real-time news and information, and the integration of social media content in the news media, creates tensions for a profession based on a discipline of verification.”13
Reporting solely based on social media postings usually does not stand up to fact-checking standards. Even more importantly, sites claiming to have news bonafides thrive in the marketplace by promoting and forwarding unverified, or worse, fictional, stories that have an air of truth and the stench of hate. Too often this results in patently false stories going viral that are subsequently picked up by legacy news outlets because they are so widely viewed as repeatable and reportable. Moreover, when false, they highlight a brand new method of privacy evasion which becomes part of the public record, and difficult-to-impossible to expunge.
As a backstop, some newspapers are now embedding original source materials, linking tweets, videos and documents into their stories. However, if the sources aren’t creditable and vetted, there is little guarantee that the stories will meet any ethical tests for news accuracy.
Nonetheless and increasingly, highly competitive 24/7 news cycle deadlines make quick decisions necessary for news directors and editors. These days the pressure to report wins out over veracity, the demand of ratings outplays sound judgement, advocacy and opinion reporting trounces objective journalism, and rumors trump a strict adherence to facts and respect for privacy.
“The field of journalism is changing rapidly as technology advances, audience habits change, the marketplace evolves and the news cycle hits warp speed,” maintained reporter, editor and educator Steve Buttry in a 2015 onMedia interview.14
“Technology,” stated Maneesha Mithal, former associate director of the Federal Trade Commission’s privacy division,15 "has rendered the conventional definition of personally identifiable information obsolete."
All of the above isn’t just an issue for today’s young Millennials and tomorrow’s Post-Millennials—Generation Z. Look no further than politics where arguably the invasion of privacy played a prominent and very public role in 2016. Leaked private cell phone conversations and hacked emails led to or even became leading stories in print, broadcast and cable news, then amplified through social media.
With millions of individuals freely exposing their lives to friends and strangers, and a tabloid press and even mainstream news tapping into personal data, privacy may soon be retired: (adj) not working anymore.
As Sun MicroSystems CEO Scott McNealy reportedly argued, it’s already a thing of the past. “Privacy is dead, deal with it.”16
1 Noah Webster, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, 1806, Privacy definition, www.premierathome.com/library/Reference/Webster's%201806%20Dictionary.txt
2 Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2016, Privacy definition, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/privacy
3 Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2016, Archaic definition, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/archaic
4 “Data Security: Not a Big Concern for Millennials,” Business Journal, Gallup Poll, June 9, 2016, http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/192401/data-security-not-big-concern-millennials.aspx
5 John P. Mello, Jr., “Experts Forecast the End of Privacy As We Know It,” TechNewsWorld, Dec 18, 2014, www.technewsorld.com/story/81501.html
6 Evan Schuman, “Does Privacy Exist Anymore? Just Barely,” Computer World, October 25, 2016
7 Russell Shanks, “Privacy: History, Legal, Social and Ethical Aspects,” Library Trends, 1986
8 Privacy Act of 1974, (Pub.L. 93–579, 88 Stat. 1896, enacted December 31, 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a), United States of America
9 “Privacy and Reporting on People’s Lives,” Ethics and Excellence Journalism Foundation, 2016 Online News Association, http://ethics.journalists.org/topics/privacy-and-reporting-on-personal-lives/
10 Steven Lohr, “How Privacy Vanishes Online,” The New York Times, March 16, 2010
11 Simson Garfinkel, “Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century,” 2000, Publisher: O’Reilly and Associates
12 Andrew Perrin and Maeve Duggan, “Americans Internet Access: 2005 - 2015,” Pew Research Center, Internet, Science & Tech, June 26, 2015, http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/06/26/americans-internet-access-2000-2015/
13 Alfred Hermida, “Tweets and Truth: Journalism as a Discipline of Collaborative Verification,” Journalism Practice, 2012, http://alfredhermida.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/Tweets-and-Truth-Hermida-Post-print.pdf
14 Kyle James, “Is it Time to Update Journalism Ethics for the 21st Century,” Interview with Steve Buttry on Media, Deutsche Welle, May 6, 2015, http://onmedia.dw-akademie.com/english/?p=22289
15 See Source 10 above.
16 Brian N. Meets, "Is Privacy Possible in the Digital Age?," NBC New.com, Dec. 8, 2000, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/3078854/t/privacy-possible-digital-age/#.WD9GhmczW7