‘Tis the Season to be Jolly

Is Privacy Dead? My Chat with Brad Pitt*

I sit in a coffee shop, sipping a cappuccino. People watching through a slightly frosted window.

This aggregated notion of my identity that becomes something that I can’t control and owned by these networks like Facebook and Google and I’m not sure of what they’re doing with it. That makes me uncomfortable.

I’m taking a break from the Christmas shopping. Alone. No contact with the rest of the world.

Although, I have forgotten that I have left my phone on, and I have been to this coffee shop before.

But my phone hasn’t forgotten that, or the coffee shop’s Wi-Fi password.

Google Maps has its blue pin stuck in the centre of my muffin, and a geo-targeting push notification is trying to nudge me into purchasing the cappuccino I already have.

Don’t allow.

I am Geo-Fenced in with no means of escape! Oh to be truly alone.

Feeling a bit whimsical about the seemingly impossible nature of achieving genuine privacy, and wanting someone to talk to about it, I give Brad Pitt a tinkle.

The reason I can give Brad a bell is because his mobile number was leaked recently as part of the huge Sony hack.

Despite his slightly incredulous reaction to my call, we get chatting on the ‘doxxing’ of celebrities (which Brad rightly says is “bang out of order”), how I hated his pretentious Chanel ad, but how much I loved Moneyball. But then he starts asking me some very personal questions, which I take offence to and so hang up the phone, but not before accusing him of being ruddy bloody intrusive.

So what is privacy?

First and foremost, it’s very subjective.

For some, being targeted by marketers based solely on your Internet history is an invasion of privacy.

As Eweware’s Dan Vrony states:

"This aggregated notion of my identity that becomes something that I can’t control and owned by these networks like Facebook and Google and I’m not sure of what they’re doing with it. That makes me uncomfortable."

I actually don’t have a problem with my “metadata,” or digital footprint, being used to guide me to places and products I am more likely to enjoy. I think the vast majority of the people are the same, and consider their metadata uninteresting and harmless and thus incapable of being used negatively.

And for marketers it is an invaluable tool in helping to tailor advertising and retargeting to maximise sales potential. The data has to be used with respect, intelligence and relevance, to create a meaningful connection with the user and strike up dialogue. Here is a quite amazing example of how the aptly named U.S retailer Target effectively diagnosed a teenage pregnancy before the family even knew, based purely on the girl’s change in shopping habits.

However, way beyond using metadata is the acquiring, storing and disseminating of private info like phone numbers, addresses, photos and webcam chats. It does seem that if someone with significant hacking knowledge and a strong enough motive wants to get hold of your personal details they can do so, and government laws and IT systems can’t do too much about it, which is a worrying trend.

People were outraged at the Facebook “emotional contagion” experiment. The lesson to be learned here is that it’s vitally important that companies are open and honest on how they are using data to maintain the consumer’s trust. Yet it should be remembered that people willingly embrace the Facebook product, checking themselves in to various points of little interest. What Facebook did was a liberty and unnecessary but hardly mind-control.

Because it ensures we're never fully known to others or to ourselves, provides a shelter for imaginative freedom, curiosity and self-reflection. So to defend the private self is to defend the very possibility of creative and meaningful life.

I read a year-old article that prophesised ibeacons were going to be all the rage in 2014.

They weren’t. They were trialled, like in Tesco’s back in April.

“It is being rolled out carefully to avoid scaring customers.” Quite a revealing statement. There is definitely a fear amongst companies and organisations about being too invasive. In light of Snowden’s revelations, perfectly understandable, but a fear of the panicked herd mentality is a little too prevalent.

It is still possible to have privacy. You may just have to try a little harder for it. I often disappear with a notebook that has only ever been read by my own eyes (I think).

Privacy will only be truly dead when people can access your deepest, darkest thoughts. I don’t mean via private diaries/journals. I mean they know them in real time, a direct link to your stream of consciousness, the thoughts that only you ever truly know and self-examine.

That’s a scary thought, but it’s OK, we are some way from this.

As psychoanalyst Josh Cohen says, privacy of the mind is important:

"Because it ensures we're never fully known to others or to ourselves, provides a shelter for imaginative freedom, curiosity and self-reflection. So to defend the private self is to defend the very possibility of creative and meaningful life."


*I should state that I did not actually talk to Brad Pitt. His line was busy, so I left him a voicemail.

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