LAS VEGAS — Our current notion of privacy has become obsolete in the internet age, author and professional speaker Richard Thieme told the DEF CON 25 hacker conference here this weekend.
Credit: Akkharat Jarusilawong
"Privacy is nonexistent. It doesn't exist in the way that it existed," Thieme said. "The 20th century framework in which we think about these things is effectively ending."
Privacy advocates and others who deny this reality, he argued, only make the transition process more painful. We instead must admit that privacy as we know it is lost and try to create new concepts for a new era.
"At the heart of internet culture is a force that wants to know everything about you. We think of privacy as a human right, but we live in a Facebook age, when all that matters is publicity." - Richard Thieme, author and commentator.
Our entire concept of privacy, Thieme explained, is a product of the printing press, which popularized literacy and intellectual thought, and of the Industrial Revolution, which made it possible for a person of modest means to have personal space. The notion of privacy is an abstract extension of that personal space.
"Before the Industrial Revolution, you had no privacy," he said. "You all lived in one room. You had no rights."
The internet revolution that began in the 1990s is changing society just as fundamentally as the printing press, Thieme said. Torrents of information flow across the world with no regard to national borders. Technology companies pick and choose which laws to follow among the countries in which they operate, moving data from one jurisdiction to another as it suits them. People put personal information online for billions of strangers to read.
"At the heart of internet culture is a force that wants to know everything about you," Thieme said. "We think of privacy as a human right, but we live in a Facebook age, when all that matters is publicity."
The notion of the individual is an idea that no longer applies in an age when ideas, words and images are transmitted, copied and altered without attribution, when copyright laws have become meaningless and when people seek immediate approval for their every thought and deed from thousands of social-media contacts. The whole world has become a small village, in which everyone gossips, trades ideas and knows everyone else's business.
"Privacy has meaning only for an individual. And we are no longer individuals," Thieme said. "We believe in ourselves, but our selves are no longer our selves. We are not the same people who we once were."
Yet few people over 25 — those who grew up before the internet — can see that yet, argues Thieme. They are fighting to preserve the way they were raised to think of themselves, and cannot comprehend that the very concept of individual privacy no longer applies.
"The language of the past is inadequate to describe what we have become through technology," Thieme said. "The move to digitize everything has made existing societal patterns liquid. Yet our minds keep the changes small in order to deal with it."
Younger people don't have this problem, he said.
"Kids don't think of privacy the same way, because they grew up without it," Thieme said. "Kids today don't know what it means to 'go on the internet' because they're always on the internet."
The way forward, he said, is to stop fighting a lost battle and surrender to the fact that privacy is gone. Only then can we begin to redefine what it means to be a person in the internet age.
"Privacy advocates — righteous and sincere — are fighting a rear-guard action against reality, and reality always wins," Thieme said. "We just have to accept that it's real."