Try this. For the next few days, as you move through the world - making your choices, reading the news, talking to your friends and family - set yourself the task of noticing how often the topic of privacy rears its head. Maybe it's not called that; maybe it's a kind of underlying theme, thrumming underneath the surface of a situation without being given its name. But it's there. There are a dozen or more moments a day when we might be able to stop and say, "You know, this has a lot to do with privacy, really." And just why is it such an ever-present theme? The answer won't shock you.
Modern privacy is the hapless, weary lab rat of the information age, constantly scrutinised under the microscope, continually tested, always under investigation. We have to keep our eye on it, because it's got a bit out of our control. We used to know what it was, you see: how it worked, how to govern it, what laws applied to it. But then - not gradually, not bit by bit, but quickly, in a tsunami of bytes - everything changed, and the concept of "privacy" mutated too. Every day privacy is tossed into the searingly hot crucible of the digital environment, its integrity challenged, its properties and limits shifting and morphing. This metaphor I'm using positions us as people who can study and control things, but that probably isn't right for this context. That doesn't represent our relationship with privacy at the minute, individually or collectively, in the online environment. We don't feel in control of much of anything. We're not clever scientists. We're clueless smallholders closing our stable doors after all our horses have bolted, wondering how this happened, mouths agape, catching flies.
The Merriam-Webster definition of privacy is twofold. The first is “the quality of or state of being apart from company or observation – seclusion”. And the second is “freedom from unauthorized intrusion – one’s right to privacy.” The Merriam-Webster definitions of "privacy" are sort of useless in the digital age, because they create as many questions as they answer. "Seclusion"? What's that? When our virtual connectivity is taken into account, when are we ever apart from company or observation? What constitutes an "intrusion" these days, when we share so much of our personal data, knowingly or unknowingly? And "unauthorised"? If we wanted to be 100% clear about what we were and weren't authorising, we'd be signing away the majority of our free time. Five years ago, The Atlantic reported that if we read and understood all of the privacy policies we encounter in a year, we'd lose 76 working days annually. Five years ago. I shouldn't like to hazard a guess about much more time it would take in 2018.
The consequences of not reading the T&Cs of what you're signing up to, with respect to privacy, came home to me recently. I listened to an episode of the Reply All podcast, all about whether Facebook is really "listening" to us via our smartphones. Following their instructions, and with a sense of foreboding, I did something I'd never done before - I looked into the advert settings to see how I'd been "categorised".