Snowden Didn't Take Away Our Privacy, But We Can Still Reclaim It

10/29/2013 08:59 am ET | Updated Dec 29, 2013

The snowball caused by the Edward Snowden leaks points out the obvious: if the United States government really wanted to spy on you, it could. It illustrates that privacy per se is not something we blankly possess. In his 1998 essay, "Imperial Bedroom," Jonathan Franzen recognized that "the right to be let alone" exists as a seductive but ultimately vacuous concept in the architecture of American values. Privacy, rather than serve as an abstract, preexisting notion to which we can rely, depends on the tacit acknowledgment that we don't reveal everything about ourselves. Contrasting our dismal reaction to Snowden leaks with our social networking behavior, we see that although we are riled by the thought that someone could be tracking the quotidian details of our lives, we continue to post intentionally cryptic or allegedly deep but almost always uninformative snapshots of our mundane affairs. So, do we still care about privacy? Should we?

Authors and journalists have long bemoaned privacy's demise and the recent documentary Terms and Conditions Apply (2013) cautions us of its consequences. In light of the fact that our behavior fails to align with our purported principles, we are compelled to reassess the value of privacy to American life and what we can do if we hope to reclaim it.

Should we still value privacy?

It's become increasingly difficult to point to a concrete example of "private life." More often, it seems, we are sharing almost everything we do (or eat) with the world. Pew Research Center reports that 72 percent of online adults use social networking sites, including 89 percent of users ages 18 to 29. An indication of the decreasing value of privacy in American society is the implicit burden placed on those who abstain from using social networking sites to explain why they have opted out. There lacks any expectation for Facebook users, for example, to justify their Facebook usage.

It suffices to say that we all just want to make a connection. And that's fine and good, but if the growing tech industry boasts of building more connections faster, then it does so at the cost of the ease with which we can comfortably be alone. In lieu of making a case for the value of being alone and the value of loneliness, I will just say that at the point in which we care about connecting with others and care about being distracted, even temporarily, from our inevitably lonely existence, we should still value privacy for the reason that having a clear notion of privacy renders the connections that we do make more meaningful. How? Because it places the burden on those who decide to share things to justify this decision. When we prioritize being reticent and being selective about what we share, the things that do get shared are done so intentionally and with purpose. Conscious judgment about what to share and what to keep secret separates thoughtless from thoughtful utterances. Without reticence, matters of importance share a space with irresolvable conflicts, such as differences in taste, and platforms for productive public discourse become clouded by vapid disputes.

How can we reclaim it?

This process of prioritizing privacy occurs when we reset our standards for what does and does not get to enter the public domain. Franzen points out that privacy loses its value unless there is something it can be defined against. Similarly, Thomas Nagel argues in favor of the boundary between public and private on the basis that it prevents ordinary individuals from being forced to take on public roles. When we define a boundary, we in other words demarcate a set of behavior by a rule. It's like saying by and large, doing x is unacceptable. For example, one argument against the legalization of torture is the fact that we don't want to live in a society that condones torture as a means to elicit information. This is not to say that all situations of torture are unjustified. Rather, it creates the room and the space to declare why in this particular case the ends achieved by torture justify the means. Torture is not taken for granted and does not become common practice.

By this logic, prioritizing reticence adds significance to sharing and the situations in which things are shared. Reticence requires a deliberate evaluation of how what we say, how we say it, and to whom it is said contributes to what we want to convey. If we care about reclaiming privacy, then we can all start by reconsidering what we post online and how we write emails, considering when and to whom they are sent. When the default is reticence--when we hold people to the standard not to expose themselves in public or not to air their dirty laundry in the mailroom -- we oblige individuals to express the motivation behind their doing. When we do decide to confide in others or otherwise bring under-the-surface issues to the fore, the intentionality of the act gives it weight.

Once we accept that privacy is not something we are granted by default but something that we must collectively work to uphold, we can begin to redefine the boundary between public and private. Only then, by exercising reticence and respecting the silence of others, can reify the right to privacy.