No Privacy Please, We’re Millennials

TrueSlant’s Kashmir Hill notes—and endorses—Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s conclusion that the kids today won’t stay off my lawn just don’t care much about privacy.

On the one hand, this shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Quite apart from the recent proliferation of social networking technology, generational researchers have long contrasted the heavily supervised and scheduled upbringings of (middle class) Millennials born in the ’80s and early ’90s with that of their “latch key” Gen X predecessors. And for anyone currently of college age, post-9/11 levels of security theater are viewed not as a novel expansion of official intrusion, but as the baseline, as normal. This can’t be a matter of total indifference to the fogeys among us, because shifting norms will affect both legislators’ willingness to ratchet up surveillance and, at least potentially, judicial assessments of which “expectations of privacy” society is prepared to recognize as “reasonable” for Fourth Amendment purposes.

Still, let me throw out some grounds for questioning this broad generational diagnosis. Privacy is not just a function of the raw quantity of information available about each of us, but of the control we exercise over that information. To be sure, it may seem that we have less of that as well when any scrap of data that appears on the Internet can so easily be copied and circulated. But for the generation that came of age online, those scraps of data are often part of a very conscious public performance of identity. Not necessarily a performance all of them will be eager to own ten years down the line, but a performance all the same.

In his excellent book The Digital Person, legal scholar Dan Solove contrasts two kinds of privacy dystopia: the Orwellian and the Kafkaesque. The focus in the Orwellian vision is on exposure: Big Brother’s spies and cameras are everywhere, and no detail of your personal life too minute to escape notice. But the plight of Kafka’s Josef K. is somewhat different: He finds himself at the mercy of an inscrutable bureaucracy, with no access to the details of his case file, and no way of tracing the provenance of the information it contains or correcting errors. We are more exposed, but we increasingly set the terms of our exposure.

It’s easy to look at all the information that comes up in a simple Google search for someone’s name and conclude that privacy is dead. But I think it’s at least as significant that the crucial first page of results is likely to consist of information that the individuals themselves have chosen to make public: Blogs, Facebook or MySpace profiles, Twitter accounts, Last.fm pages, YouTube channels. A similar inquiry a generation ago surely would have been much more laborious and less fruitful, but it also would have consisted to a far greater extent of what others had to say about the target: gossip first and foremost, but perhaps also press mentions, official records, and so on. It’s not that such information is now less accessible, but for the average person, it’s pushed to the margin by what we’ve chosen to disclose. That’s not an unmixed blessing—some may feel as though this merely traps them in a kind of openness arms race—but neither is it the privacy death-spiral a purely quantitative analysis might suggest.