Privacy – and Occupy Wall Street?

One of tweeters I follow, the estimable @privacycamp, asked a question on twitter last night: is there a privacy take on ‘Occupy Wall Street’? I immediately fired off a quick response – of course there is – but it started me off on a train of thought that’s still chugging along. That’s brought about this somewhat rambling blog-post, a bit different from anything I’ve done before – and I’d like to stress that even more than usual these are my personal musings!

Many people in the UK may not even have noticed Occupy Wall Street – it certainly hasn’t had a lot of mainstream media coverage over here – but it seems to me to be something worthy of a lot of attention. A large number of people – exactly how many is difficult to be sure about – have been ‘occupying’ Liberty Square near Wall Street, the financial heart of New York – indeed, some might call it the financial heart of the modern capitalist world. Precisely what they’re protesting against is hard to pin down but not at all hard to understand. As it’s described on occupywallst.org, it is a:

“leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.”

That isn’t in any sense an ‘official’ definition – because there’s nothing ‘official’ about occupy wall street. The movement has spread – the Guardian, one of the UK newspapers to give it proper coverage, talks about it reaching 70 US cities – and has lasted over three weeks so far, with little sign of flagging despite poor media coverage, strong-arm police tactics and a perceived lack of focus.

So what has this got to do with privacy? Or, perhaps more pertinently, what has this kind of a struggle got in common with the struggle for privacy? Why do people like me, whose work is concerned with internet privacy, find ourselves instinctively both supporting and admiring the people occupying Wall Street? Well, the two struggles do have a lot more in common than might appear at first glance. They’re both struggles for the ‘ordinary’ people – for the ‘little’ people – against a huge and often seemingly irresistible ‘machine’. Where Occupy Wall Street is faced by an array of banks with huge political and financial influence, internet privacy advocates are faced by the monoliths of the internet industry – Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple etc – whose political and financial influence is beginning to rival that of the banks. Both Occupy Wall Street and internet privacy advocates are faced by systems and structures that seems to have no alternatives, and institutions which appear so entrenched as to be impossible to stand against.

Further to that, both the banks and the big players of the internet can claim with justification that over the years they’ve provided huge benefits to all of us, and that we wouldn’t be enjoying the pleasures and benefits of our modern society but for their innovation and enterprise – I’m writing this blog on a system owned by Google, on a computer made by Apple, and bought through a credit card provided by one of the big banks. Does this mean, however, that I should accept everything that those big players – either financial or technological – give me, and accept it uncritically? Does it mean that the people occupying Wall Street should shuffle off home and accept that Wall Street, warts and all, cannot be stood up against – and should be supported, not challenged? I don’t think so.

Of course there are ways in which the two struggles are radically different. The damage done to peoples’ lives by the financial crisis which is the core of the protest against Wall Street is huge – far huger than the material damage done by all the privacy-intrusive practices performed on the internet. People have lost their livelihoods, their houses, their families – perhaps even their futures – as a result. The damage from privacy intrusions is less material, harder to pin down, harder to see, harder to prove. It is, however, very important – and is likely to become more important in the future. Ultimately it has an affect on our autonomy – and that’s where the real parallels with Occupy Wall Street lie. Both movements are about people wanting more control over their lives. Both are about people standing up and saying ‘enough is enough,’ and ‘we don’t want to take this any more’.

Occupy Wall Street may well fizzle out soon. I hope not – because I’d love to see it have a lasting influence, and help change the political landscape. The odds are stacked against them in more ways that I can count – but I didn’t think they’d last as long as they have, so who knows what will happen? The struggle for privacy faces qualitatively different challenges, but at times it seems as though the odds are stacked just as much in favour of those who would like the whole idea of privacy to be abandoned. Even if that is the case, it’s still a fight that I believe needs fighting.

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