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Notes on Privacy

The debates on privacy which have been circulating since the dawn of the internet age tend to focus either on the immutable rights of private companies to control their intellectual property or the obsolescence of the notion of actual people to control access to their personal information. There’s an interesting hypocrisy there, as the former rights are represented as pillars of civilized society and the latter expectations are represented as quaint but irrelevant luxuries of a bygone era.

This double standard aside, the issue of privacy itself is never discussed. What is it, and how do we explain its existence within the framework of science? To me, the term privacy as applied to physics is more useful in some ways than consciousness. When we talk about private information being leaked or made public, we really mean that the information can now be accessed by unintended private parties. There is really no scientific support for the idea of a truly ‘public’ perspective ontologically. All information exists only within some interpreter’s sensory input and information processing capacity. While few would argue that there is no universe beyond our human experience of it, who can say that there is no universe beyond *any* experience of it? Just because I don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t look like something, but if there nothing can see it can we really say that it looks like something?

Privacy would be more of a problem for theoretical physics than it is for internet users, if physicists were to try to explain it. It is through the problems which have risen with the advent of widespread computation that we can glimpse the fundamental issue with our worldview and with our legacy understanding of its physics. With identity theft, pirated software, appropriated endorsements, data mining, and now Prism, it should be obvious that technology is exposing something about privacy itself which was not an issue before.

The physics of privacy that I propose suggests that by making our experiences public through a persistent medium, we are trading one kind of entropy for another. When we express an aspect of our private life into a public network, the soft, warm blur of inner sense is exposed to the cold, hard structure of outer knowledge. It is an act which is thermodynamically irreversible – a fact which politicians seem slow to understand as the cover-up of the act seems invariably the easier transgression to discover and prove. The cover up alerts us to the initial crime as well as a suggestion of the knowledge of guilt, and the criminal intent to conceal that guilt. The same thing undoubtedly occurs on a personal level as subjects which are most threatening to people’s marriages and careers are probably those which can be found by searching for purging behavior and keywords related to embarrassment.

As the high-entropy fuzziness of inner life is frozen into the low-entropy public record, a new kind of entropy over who can access this record is introduced. Security issues stem from the same source as both IP law issues and surveillance issues. The ability to remain anonymous, to expose anonymity, to spoof identifiers leading to identification, etc, are all examples of the shadow of private entropy cast into the public realm. There’s no getting around it. Identity simply cannot be pinned down 100% – that kind of personal entropy can only be silenced personally. Only we know for sure that we are ourselves, and that certainty, that primordial negentropy is the only absolute which we can directly experience. Decartes cogito is a personal statement of that absolute certainty (Je pense donc je suis), although I would say that he was too narrow in identifying thought in particular as the essence of subjectivity. Indeed, thinking is not something that we notice until we are a few years old, and it can be backgrounded into our awareness through a variety of techniques. I would say instead that it is the sense of privacy which is the absolute: solace, solitude, solipsism – the sense of being apart from all that can be felt, seen, known, and done. There is a sense of a figurative ‘place’ in which ‘we’ are which is separate and untouchable to anything public.

This sense seems to be corroborated by neuroscience as well, since no instrument of public discovery seems to be able to find this place. I don’t see this as anything religious or mystical (though religion and mysticism does seek to explain this sense more than science has), but rather as evidence that our understanding of physics is incomplete until we can account for privacy. Privacy should be understood as something which is as real as energy or matter, in fact, it should be understood as that which divides the two and discerns the difference. Attention to reveal, intention to reveal or conceal, and the oscillation between the three is at the heart of all identity, from human beings to molecules. The control of uncertainty, through camouflage, pretending, and outright deception has been an issue in biology almost from the start. Before biology, concealment seems limited to unintentional circumstances of placement and obstruction, although that could be a limitation of our perception as well. Since what we can see of another’s privacy may not ever be what it appears, it stands to reason that our own privacy may not ever be able to play the role of impartial public observer. Privacy is made of bias, and that bias is the relativistic warping of perception itself.

Privacy and Social Media

Continuing with the idea of information entropy as it relates to privacy, social media acts as a laboratory for these kinds of issues. Before Facebook, the notion of friendship floated on a cushion of consensual entropy – politeness. As the song goes “don’t ask me what I think of you, I might not give the answer that you want me to.”. Whom one considered a friend was largely a subjective matter with high public entropy. Even when declaring friendship openly, there was no binding agreement and it was effortless for sociable people to retain many asymmetric relations. Politeness has always been part of the security apparatus of those who are powerful or popular. Nobility and politeness have a curious relation, as the well heeled are expected to embody exemplary breeding but also have license to employ rudeness and blunt honesty at will. The haughtiness of high position is one of reserving one’s own right to expose others faults while being protected from others ability to do the same.

Facebook, while not the first social network to employ a structure of friendship granting, has made the most out of it. From the start, the agenda of Facebook has been to neutralize the power of politeness and to encourage public declaration of friendship as a binding, binary statement – yes you are my friend or (no response). Unfriending someone is a political act which can have real implications. Even failing to respond to someone’s friend request can have social currency. The result is a tacit bias toward liberal friending policies, and a consequent need for filtering to control who are treated as friends and who are treated as potential friends, tolerated acquaintances, frienemies, etc. Google Plus offers a more explicit system for managing this non-consensual social entropy to more conveniently permit social asymmetry.

Twitter has wound up playing an unusual role in which privacy of elites is protected in one sense and exposed in another. Unlike other social networks, The 140 character limit on tweets, which came from the desire to make it compatible with SMS, has the unintentional consequence of providing a very fast stream with low investment of attention. For a celebrity who wants to retain their popularity and relevance, it is an ideal way to keep in touch with large numbers of fans without the expectation of social involvement that is implied by a richer communication system. It gives back some of the latitude which Facebook takes away – you don’t have friends on Twitter, you have Followers. It is not considered as much of a slight not to follow someone back, and it is not considered as a threat to follow someone that you don’t know. In a way, Twitter makes controlled stalking acceptable, just as Facebook makes being nosy about someone’s friends acceptable.

Hacktivist as hero, villain, genius, and clown.

There is more than enough that has been written on the subject of the changing attitudes toward technoverts (geeks, nerds, dorks, dweebs, et. al.) over the last three decades, but the most contentious figure to come out of the computer era has been the one who is skilled at wielding the power to reveal and conceal. Early on, in movies like Wargames and The Net, there was a sense of support for the individual underdog against the impersonal machine. Even R2D2 in the original Star Wars played David to the Death Star’s Goliath computer while connecting to it secretly. The tide began to turn it seems, in the wake of Napster, which unleashed a worldwide celebration of music sharing, to the horror of those who had previously enjoyed a monopoly over the distribution of music. Since then, names like Anonymous, Assange, and Snowden have aroused increasingly polarized feelings.

The counter-narrative of the hacker as villain, although always present within the political and financial power structures as a matter of protection, has become a new kind of arch-enemy in the eyes of many. It is very delicate territory to get into for the media. Journalism, like nobility, floats on a layer of politeness. To continue to be able to reveal some things, it must conceal its sources. The presence of an Assange or Snowden presents a complicated issue. If they friend the hacker/whistleblower/whistleblower-enabler, then become linked to their authority-challenging values, but if they villify them, then they indict their own methods and undermine their own moral authority and David vs Goliath reputation.

Of course, it’s not just the issues of whistleblowing in general but the specific character of the whistleblower and the organization they are exposing which are important. This is not a simple matter of legal principle since it really depends on who it is in society which we support as to whether the ability to access protected information is good, bad, lawful, chaotic, admirable, frivolous, etc. It all depends on whether the target of the breach is themselves good, bad, lawful, chaotic, etc. In America in particular we are of two minds about justice. We love the Dirty Harry style of vigilante justice on film, but in reality we would consider such acts to be terrorism. We like the idea of democracy in theory, but when it comes to actual exercises of freedom of speech and assembly in protest, we break out the tear gas and shake our heads at the naive idealists.

Twitter fits in here as well. It is as much the playground of celebrities to flirt with their audience as it is the authentic carrier of news beyond the control of the media. It too can be used for nefarious purposes. Individuals and groups can be tracked, disinformation and confusion can be spread. David and Goliath can both imitate each other, and the physics of privacy and publicity have given rise to a new kind of ammunition in a new kind of perpetual war.

  1. Joseph McCard (really)
    June 19, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    I don’t understand what you mean by “private”. My SS# is private information. My thoughts are private until I make them public.

    If all there is is sense, how can I have private information or private thoughts? How do I have my own private identity? Why isn’t it all public?

    For example, if it were all public, it would be impolite of me to read your thoughts, but, it would be possible.

    • June 19, 2013 at 4:38 pm

      Your SS# is a public artifact though. The government has to issue it in some material form which your body can contact externally in order for you to internalize the sense of it privately. If it was not recorded publicly, it would have no use.

      Sense is perception-participation (or feeling-doing, afference-efference, etc). Privacy is the accumulation of feelings while publicity is the accumulation of doings…doings which have been informed by feelings. As a person, we have a really elaborate and rich history of nested feelings and doings so that our privacy is relative. We can look at brain activity and deduce some of what we might think is private – but only because neuroscientists themselves have private experiences which they can match up to the public data. In this insane looking diagram: https://multisenserealism.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/xpt.jpg I am trying to give a sense of how this nesting goes. Our internal organs for instance are private relative to our body, but public relative to our thoughts and feelings. Our brain activity is public relative to our thoughts and feelings but on a different layer relative to the gross behavior of the organ (i.e. you need an EEG or fMRI to see the brain doing anything).

      In my view, it is actually the public view which is derived. The universe is fundamentally ‘private’ in that it is a directly felt experience. The public view is shattered across spacetime, reduced to material tokens (from the perspective of the shattered side). Think of it like a play. The articulation of character’s bodies and props on stage is a public mechanism, but the actual sense of the play is a shared private experience of the audience members. They can write about it and give others a second hand feel of the experience. If it were ‘all public’ then there would be no play, only bodies making noises to each other in a room.

      Reading thoughts is not out of the question, but you would be reading them in the privacy of your own mind. Telepathy would, in my view, pick up thoughts from the supra-personal layers of privacy, in which we all share the same events (like 9/11). There is no transfer of particles or waves among the inside of different people’s skulls, it would be more of an extra-sensitive empathy for the ‘larger now’ on the fringes of most people’s awareness. It’s much easier to read people’s thoughts by having them write it down. The higher you go into the super-personal, the less ‘real’ the information becomes. In the thin air of the transpersonal psyche, fiction and fact are not opposites.

  2. Joseph McCard (really)
    June 20, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    “Your SS# is a public artifact though. The government has to issue it in some material form which your body can contact externally in order for you to internalize the sense of it privately.”

    So, public means external to the body, private means internal to the body.

    So, we can both focus our attention on what is external to our bodies. I can focus my attention on that which is internal to my body, but you cannot?

    • June 20, 2013 at 5:12 pm

      “So, public means external to the body, private means internal to the body.”

      Even the body is public. Private means internal to person – to their experience of their lives.

      “So, we can both focus our attention on what is external to our bodies. I can focus my attention on that which is internal to my body, but you cannot?”

      As long as we both have similar capacities of attention. We can both focus our attention to watching a movie as a movie, but a cat probably won’t sustain the same kind of attention very long. Maybe to claw at the screen credits as they go scrolling by at the end.

      We can both focus on what is internal to your body in the sense of we can both watch you undergo surgery, but I can’t experience your life directly, although I can infer some things about how your life might be in the inside from looking at your face, behavior, writing etc on the outside. A cat can’t do that as well, although she might know when you are reaching for the cat food.

  3. Joseph McCard (really)
    June 20, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    “Sense is perception-participation (or feeling-doing, afference-efference, etc). Privacy is the accumulation of feelings while publicity is the accumulation of doings…doings which have been informed by feelings. As a person, we have a really elaborate and rich history of nested feelings and doings so that our privacy is relative.

    Sense is
    perception : participation :: feeling : doing
    afferent : efferent :: inward : outward.
    feeling : doing :: private : public
    private : public :: internal : external
    privacy : publicity :: feelings : doings(feelings)

    Then, as a person, I have a history of nested feelings. I also have a history of nested doings, [doings(feelings)]. My privacy (internal) is relative to my {participation [doing(feeling)] } ?

    “We can look at brain activity and deduce some of what we might think is private – but only because neuroscientists themselves have private experiences which they can match up to the public data.”

    When we look at brain activity, as you say, are we looking at what is private, or are we looking at the neural correlates of private? That is, as I asked in the beginning, what does “private” mean?

    So, if the neuroscientist CAN match up our brain activity with their own private experience, is my internal brain activity public or private. If that is the case, what is the difference between public and private? It sounds like maybe part public/ part private, or somewhat public/ somewhat private.

    • June 20, 2013 at 7:16 pm

      ” My privacy (internal) is relative to my {participation [doing(feeling)] }”

      Yes, they are the same thing. If it’s a feeling, then it is private. If something is private, then it’s a feeling/sensation. If it’s a ‘real’ body that can have a position then it’s public. By real body I mean to distinguish what we might dream of a body – a dream brick is not reliable, it is not subject to irreversible changes.

      “is my internal brain activity public or private.”


      ” what is the difference between public and private?”

      Public is bodies in space which are subject to public inspection. Private is experiences through time which are not subject to public inspection (and limited private inspection in the case of a human being…having subconsicous and superpersonal levels of privacy).

  4. Joseph McCard (really)
    June 20, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    “Private means internal to person – to their experience of their lives.’

    What do you take a person to be? Sense? How is their a multiplicity of persons, me and thee, in the unity of sense?

    “We can both focus our attention to watching a movie”

    How do we have the ability to focus, and to change that focus, say, from the public external to the private internal without the energy to do so?

    • June 20, 2013 at 7:27 pm

      “What do you take a person to be? Sense? ”

      A person is a sensory-motor experience of human quality. A person is a human lifetime.

      “How is their a multiplicity of persons, me and thee, in the unity of sense? ”

      In the same way that piece of pie can be sliced halfway so that the slices are only cut on the edge but are not cut in the center. Of course, that’s a metaphor, since the slices I’m talking about are histories through time, not spatial regions of pie.

      “How do we have the ability to focus, and to change that focus, say, from the public external to the private internal without the energy to do so?”

      Voluntary attention is where we really get down to the nitty gritty of ‘you’. The ‘you’ who controls ‘your’ attention I think is the closest we can get to the primordial sensory-motor unit…which is the Absolute, in the fundamental sense. To change focus is to participate in the most direct way with your own presence. We are the energy. There is no other energy, just the primary capacity to contract and expand attention. As a human, of course we are presented through this enormous ensemble of accumulated events, so we do have constraints on our attention which could be called ‘energy’ as a way of keeping track of the politics of it, but ultimately it’s will all the way down.

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