Photo: Mike Morgan


Beyond Privacy

How democracy can survive in the digital age.

In his book Life after Privacy: Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance Society, Firmin DeBrabander ’94 argues that the battle to protect personal information in the digital age has largely been fought and lost. We recently spoke to the Maryland Institute College of Art philosophy professor about what that means for the future of our democracy.

When did we lose the battle for personal privacy?

We never really had it. It’s a suburban creation. In England, once hedges went up in the front of houses, suddenly there was this expectation of some kind of privacy. After World War II, in America, we had suburban sprawl. You couldn’t build a better infrastructure for privacy.

So privacy isn’t some kind of political ideal from our country’s founding?

The privacy advocates—who aren’t very happy with my book, by the way—take for granted that you need privacy. So I thought I’d try to get to the bottom of how essential it is to democracy. And I now believe that it’s not essential after all.

But we have had some degree of privacy in the past. What happened to it?

We surrendered it, largely to reap the benefits of digital commerce. My younger students say things like, “What do I care if Amazon has my shoe size?” Even people in their forties and fifties, I’m amazed to
find that they’re not terribly worried about privacy, either. They’re thrilled that Wegmans knows what they like and pumps out the coupons. If you’re going to take advantage of these conveniences,
you need to open up your life. Google’s promise is, The more you let us know about you, the more we can do for you. And most people do that.

What is the concern some people have about eroding privacy and democracy?

The political fear is that your enemies can use your information against you. It could be straight-up blackmail, but it could also be more subtle. The example I used to give was, “I could go on to Amazon and start looking for books by Hezbollah. But what if I’m being watched? Maybe I won’t.” So you censor yourself, of your own volition.

You don’t give that example anymore?

The problem is, people don’t actually behave like this online. People look at Hezbollah books every day.

Your conclusion is that privacy isn’t necessary for democracy. Why is that?

In researching the book, I started reading about big social and political movements of the 20th century: civil rights, gay rights, the labor movement. The people in those efforts never had privacy. When Robert Moses went to Mississippi to organize sharecroppers, the white supremacists knew what he was up to immediately. He went into the courthouse and he was savagely beaten and nearly died. And how did he persevere? Through numbers, and through organization. You saw this in the labor movement as well. Ford and GM had spies in all of their factories. But the leaders were able to overcome that through superior organization over time. So what’s important is the power of organizing in the public realm—the public realm is more important to democracy than the private realm, but unfortunately the public realm is in a pretty poor shape in America.

How so?

Once upon a time, we had all these public spaces where people could meet and protest and organize. The most common place where people convene today is the mall. But the mall is actually a private space. They will escort you out if you stage a demonstration.

Isn’t social media the modern analog for the public space you’re describing?

It’s a very poor analog because of the nature of the discourse it produces. It has funneled people into echo chambers where they vilify one another. They don’t learn to talk to one another. So a recommitment to truly public spaces for productive dialogue would be part of a recommitment to democracy.

What else is needed?

A return to educating young people about the value of a public life and a commitment to democracy. Not just learning the facts of your democracy, but what it means to be a citizen, and to work the engines of power as a democratic citizen.

So it’s a reinvestment in public spaces and civics classes versus some of the most powerful corporations in the history of the world. How optimistic are you?

I’m pretty optimistic in general. It’s looking like there’s appetite for antitrust legislation in both parties, which could rein in the power of these corporations. But I’m optimistic mostly because of the younger generation. They have this instinctive yearning for public life, and they have learned important lessons about the power of organization from movements like Black Lives Matter and the fight against climate change. 

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