Skip to main content

Privacy is not dead

By Jack Cheng, Special to CNN
June 8, 2013 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Jack Cheng says privacy isn't dead.
Jack Cheng says privacy isn't dead.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jack Cheng: I live my life in the open, I'm OK with websites and services tracking me
  • Cheng: The revelation that the government has been snooping on calls is not a shocker
  • He says while young people share everything, privacy is not dead; it's different
  • Cheng: Privacy is contingent on what services we choose to use and how we use them

Editor's note: Jack Cheng is the author of "These Days," a novel about startups, modern relationships and the human side of technology.

(CNN) -- I live my life in the open: I'm easily googleable, emailable, and you can figure out from my Twitter and Instagram accounts what I've been doing. For a while my phone number was posted publicly on my Facebook profile.

I'm aware that these sites and services are tracking me. I know they're collecting my data, crunching it and selling it to advertisers, who in turn try to sell me things, and I am OK with this.

It's the cost of admission. These services help me stay connected with my friends and interact with strangers, and in turn I grant them permission to analyze my tweets and profile my Facebook interests for profit.

The revelation that the government is snooping on our communications in the interest of national security is nothing new. This latest incident doesn't come as a shocker.

Jack Cheng
Jack Cheng

You might guess that I reacted with mild surprise followed by general indifference, because young people are already sharing everything anyway. Besides, privacy is dead, right?

Privacy is not dead. The phone snooping is on a different level than that of companies selling my data to advertisers. Such behavior is unsettling, and is perhaps a true threat to privacy.

There are some in Silicon Valley who regard privacy as a relic of the past, something that falls off the back of the truck of progress as it rumbles into the future. It reminds me of sci-fi author Rudy Rucker's novel, "Postsingular," in which entrepreneurs unleash nanobots that virtually overnight blanket the earth and create an Internet-on-steroids instantly connecting everything on the planet, letting humans peer into any part of the world.

The novel is a thought experiment on the obliteration of privacy, and Rucker imagines dumpster-diving as routine — everyone can peer into the trash can at McDonald's and find discarded but perfectly edible griddle cakes. Crime basically disappears as everyone knows where everyone else is and what they are doing. Even clothing is a mere formality.

But even in the book there are blind spots, places the nanobots can't reach. In our real world, privacy isn't anywhere close to dead. Privacy today is just more nuanced and exists in different ways than 10, 50, 100 years ago.

It is not simply a matter of sharing more or less; not merely how much but in what way and with whom. Privacy is contingent on who we're trying to keep something private from -- family, friends, acquaintances, employers, strangers.

With more services and apps and greater degrees of control in which we can use them, we find ourselves having to make more decisions about where to draw the lines.

Friends of mine will untag themselves from Facebook photos to hide more unflattering images of themselves if they are "friends" with their employers. Some refrain from posting to Facebook things they don't want their parents to see, opting for Twitter instead, where their parents don't have accounts. Snapchat is built around a privacy-minded constraint: Mission Impossible-esque messages that self-destruct shortly after opening.

The nature of social media also makes room for subterfuge, and an illusory openness is another form of privacy. The Internet allows for masks, false identities and misrepresentation. It's prevalent enough in online dating, for instance, that MTV has a show devoted to it. There may be new spotlights illuminating our lives, but these lights also cast shadows, and these shadows become new places where we can hide ourselves from the world.

The kind privacy that is becoming more of the norm is dependent on our ability to move freely among the myriad services and apps, and to opt in selectively, both in what we use and how we choose to use them.

I'm not about to disable all my accounts. But I do wonder if we're heading into a future where we have to be constantly mindful of when our privacy might just slip through the cracks.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jack Cheng.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT