The 12th Century
Imagine a minor noble sitting around the dining hall of a medieval European castle finishing off a few after dinner drinks. The noble takes a long draw on his draught, wipes his mouth on his sleeve and proclaims to his friends,
"You know, I think that we would all be better off if everyone had a say in how they were governed. Each person could have one vote and they could apply that vote to electing their representatives. Those representatives could then do the governing and if they did not suit the needs of the people, then they would not be elected the next time around. This would make the government responsive to the needs of the people and would improve society by making everyone a stakeholder."
A round of belly laughs and guffaws scampers through the room as everyone immediately sees the patent absurdity of this idea.
"The masses are too uneducated to select their own leaders," offers one rather sinister and effete looking noble.
"The masses are too easily swayed by demagoguery," offers another.
"Elections would become popularity contests," offers a third, "where only those who are good looking with honest faces would have a chance."
"Yes, yes," replies the harbinger of change, "all those problems may well occur. But the problems that result from my idea are far outweighed by the benefits and the difficulty that they create will diminish with time. What I have offered, is the right thing to do and it is only a matter of time before it comes about."
The 21st Century
Now imagine an information systems specialist sitting around a birds of a feather session at a privacy conference. Our specialist is staring out the window lost in thought while the other attendees chant the catechisms of invaded privacy. They talk about personal information, shopping history, medical conditions, bad credit reports, and some times a chill comes over room when the conversation drifts unexpectedly to that modern day incarnation of evil - the social security number. There is no audible "Amen" after each claim of violated privacy, but it is certainly implied. They are soldiers in the good war. The war against the invasion of privacy by information technology.
The discussion reaches one of those predictable lulls as our specialist returns from the outer reaches of imagination and focuses once again on the presence and the reality of the small meeting room. He begins to speak in that slow and measured way which suggests that the words are being formed one at a time in his brain and delivered directly to his mouth. He says,
"I think that personal privacy is a thing of the past. Any transaction that occurs and is recorded in cyberspace should be available to anyone who want to see it. Not only do I think that there should be no restrictions on the dissemination of personal information, but I think that society has a responsibility to make it easily accessible to everyone. There should be public workstations in every library that allow anyone to come in off of the street and examine personal information about anyone they wish to know about."
The room became very quiet.
"I want to know what you buy at the grocery store, what video tapes you rent, how much money you make, what your mortgage payments are, and whether or not you have any hideous diseases. I want to know where you buy your gasoline and how much you spend in car repairs. I want to know where you went on vacation and how you got there. I want to know how often you call your mother, and what your kids get on their report cards. Not only do I want to know, I think it is my right to know. I have a right to orient myself in the world and know things about the people around me. Suppression of information leads to isolation, alienation, supposition, innuendo, and superstition. In short, I think that any that restricts the flow of personal information is immoral."
Although it did not seem possible, the room grew even more quiet.
Nobody wanted to speak. They were not used to opposition. The moral highground of privacy had never been seriously challenged. To find themselves on the lowground of inhibiting the free flow of information and being pursued by a flash flood of self righteousness was not something they had expected. They were too used to nods and the implied "Amens", nobody knew how to address the opposition. So they began to raise their familiar old arguments.
"What if somebody looks at your purchases from the grocery store and starts calling you at dinner time to sell products ?"
"What if you are denied medical insurance because of a medical condition ?"
"What if you are denied a job because of some event in your past ?"
"What if you rent adult movies or call 976 numbers and somebody decides to broadcast that information to everyone on the internet ?"
"Yes, yes," replied the harbinger of change, "all those problems may well occur. But the problems that result from my idea are far outweighed by the benefits. And the difficulty that they create will diminish with time. What I have offered, is the right thing to do and it is only a matter of time before it comes about."
Text appropriated from John M. Artz, Ph.D.. Read also A Mock Debate Against Privacy.