Skip to main content

Privacy was good while it lasted

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
March 18, 2013 -- Updated 1800 GMT (0200 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Mitt Romney's 47% video showed that there's no such thing as private sphere
  • For politicians and for the rest of us, every moment can be captured forever, he says
  • Frum: Privacy was a relatively recent human invention, and now it's likely gone forever

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

Washington (CNN) -- To be a politician today is to live in some ways like a citizen of North Korea. A politician must assume that he or she is under 24-hour audio-visual surveillance. Any objectionable remark, any untoward joke, any awkward facial expression may be recorded and broadcast. Professional and personal ruin can strike at any moment.

If George Allen's "macaca" moment didn't drive home the point, Scott Prouty's 47% video certainly should.

But it's not only politicians who live under perpetual surveillance. We all do!

David Frum
David Frum

Earlier this month, researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University detailed how Facebook systematically erodes users' privacy wishes.

"Researchers found that during the first four years, users steadily limited what personal data was visible to strangers within their school network. Yet through changes Facebook introduced to its platform in 2009 and 2010, the social network actually succeeded in reversing some users' inclination to avoid public disclosure of their data.

In fact, the social network's new policies were not only able to partly override an active desire not to post personal details publicly, but they have so far kept such disclosures from sinking back to their lower levels, according to the study. They also found that even as people sought to limit what strangers could learn about them from their Facebook profiles, they actually increased what information they shared with their friends.

Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg has famously said that privacy is no longer a social norm. He's worked mightily to make those words self-fulfilling, and in tandem with other technologies (smartphones) and social media (notably YouTube), Zuckerberg has succeeded.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The demise of privacy as a social norm is leading to the demise of privacy as a legal right. Scott Prouty likely won't face legal sanctions for videotaping Romney.

Mike Edmonson, spokesman for the Palm Beach County State Attorney, explains why not: "For the law to be broken, the person being taped must have a reasonable expectation of privacy." Once upon a time, a speaker might have expected that an off-the-record, closed-door speech in a private home would be "private." No longer. The less privacy we have, the less we have a legal right to -- and the less we have a legal right to, the less we will have.

For those accustomed to older ways, this new world of compulsive and compulsory self-revelation is a strange place in which to live. Yet it could be said that we are in fact reverting to the oldest way of all. Through most of human existence, human beings had little to no privacy. For most of the past 10,000 years, most people lived in tiny farming villages, where everybody knew everything about them and about all their family. Privacy was born in the city, as E.B. White famously observed when urban life was still a new experience for most Americans.

"On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy."

What curly fries say about you

It's a paradox, but also a fact: the only way to experience privacy is in the midst of a crowd. The theme song to the 1980s situation comedy "Cheers" celebrated an urban bar as a place where "everybody knows your name." Through most of human history, most people would take it for granted that the people they met would know their name -- name singular, since for most of human history, most people only needed a single name to identify themselves.

When White celebrated urban anonymity in his 1949 essay, "Here is New York," urbanism was still a relatively new experience for most Americans. The United States had become majority urban as recently as 1920, and then only by the U.S. Census definition of urban as a settlement of more than 2,500 persons.

Will we in retrospect come to see the urban anonymity celebrated by White as a brief interval in human history? Already in 1962, the prophetic scholar of media Marshall McLuhan foresaw the coming of a "global village": a planet in which information spread as fast as in the farming village of yore.

A Google search of the phrase reveals that most users of the phrase imagine the global village as a friendly, tranquil place. McLuhan knew better. The old village was a place in which conflict could never be escaped, in which the public and the private could never be separated. So it has become in the new.

What happened to Mitt Romney can happen to anyone who has ever said or done anything improper or stupid in the vicinity of any electronic device.

It can happen to anyone who has ever sent an e-mail that might cause offense to a third party. It can happen to anyone who has ever posted a later-regretted photo or video online.

Granted, most of us are protected somewhat by others' lack of interest in our secrets. But that can change in an instant if our oafish behavior is oafish enough. A few seconds of oafish video can generate a lifetime of humiliation -- that will torture the humiliated person long after it has ceased to amuse the people who once laughed at him. It happened to Mitt Romney. It can happen to you.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2106 GMT (0506 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2317 GMT (0717 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2041 GMT (0441 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT