The sort of privacy you protect with a towel and the sort of privacy you protect with a 256-bit block cypher aren’t all that differentby Sam Leith / September 17, 2015 / Leave a comment
Picture me, if you will, on a Cornish beach this summer, doing something generations of British men have done. I refer, of course, to the awkward towel-dance: the corners of a small beach towel tweezed at hip-height between the fingers of one hand, while with the other hand I attempt to extricate myself from a damp pair of swimming shorts. I resemble a drunken baby giraffe. The hips gyrate; the balance shifts; the towel gapes…
What on earth is all this about? Why, I’m protecting my privacy. The moment, in these negotiations, when a corner of the towel escapes the thumb and the unthinkable happens may come to be known as an “Ashley Madison.” As in: “OMG. I totally Ashley Madisoned on the beach. I half-mooned the whole west side of Whitstable. My children still aren’t speaking to me.”
The sort of privacy you protect with a towel and the sort of privacy you protect with a 256-bit block cypher aren’t all that different. We are accustomed to the idea that many things personal to us—be they body parts, thoughts and feelings, the records of our associations or data about our health, wealth and sexual preferences—should remain our own, on the analogy (perhaps) with property. Privacy, and the loss of it, are guiding preoccupations of the internet age: as we voluntarily share our data on social media, allow it to be harvested from us unwittingly and fall victim to leaks and hacks, the whole idea of privacy as a sustainable state is vanishing. To extend the analogy with property, you could say that the assault on copyright which is transforming the creative industries is part of the same process.
Children of the 20th century tend to feel privacy as an established norm from which this process represents an unprecedented and alarming deviation. And that’s true: but it is not a very long-established norm. The expectation of privacy, “fundamental human right” or no, may turn out to be nothing more than a blip in human history.
Anthropologists talk of a distinction between shame societies, where the moral order is sustained by the eyes of the tribe, and guilt societies, where taboos are internalised and conscience is king. The whiggish version of this, at least in the west, sees a shift with the Reformation. Protestant ideas about inwardness, an…