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The End of Privacy, Part 498

A haunting recent piece in the Times by Hasan M. Elahi, an associate professor at Maryland, who was picked-up by the FBI while traveling after Sept. 11th.  Elahi recounts his interrogation (very bureaucratic, no scary stuff), but also his impulse to share everything in response to the questioning. Elahi eventually created a website documenting his life that now contains over 40,000 images, including screen shots of his financial records. He even wrote a program to turn his phone into a tracking device. As Elahi writes:

In an era in which everything is archived and tracked, the best way to maintain privacy may be to give it up. Information agencies operate in an industry that values data. Restricted access to information is what makes it valuable. If I cut out the middleman and flood the market with my information, the intelligence the F.B.I. has on me will be of no value. Making my private information public devalues the currency of the information the intelligence gatherers have collected.

Elahi’s work is a bold challenge to those who would maintain that we need to work harder to create informational spaces of privacy, what I’m calling “data pores” in my new book. Stop pretending and start divulging, he wants to argue. At least this way we’re aware of the reality of our infoscape and might be more adept at becoming sophisticated actors within it.

There is something decidedly unsettling about Elahi’s response. It has the whiff of trauma about it — that his encounter with the FBI was so disturbing that he is going to perform the very subjugation his interrogators were after relentlessly for the rest of his life. While it does feel like a welcome wake-up call — that when it comes to information, privacy is a deeply fragile category today — I wonder whether this kind of traumatized response really is the best way. It may be too simplistic to want privacy to come back, but perhaps the best part of a project like Elahi’s is it helps us think about privacy’s endurance, all those aspects of our lives that cannot be shared. Sharing “everything” is a way to pinpoint the limits of sharing.