Dec 24, 2013

    We need privacy to fail, secrecy to succeed

    DO NOT be surprised if, one day, your computer in the corner laughs quietly to itself at your unspoken, unposted New Year's resolutions.

    How many of our attempts to try something new have been stillborn and sabotaged by performance anxiety? Stifled and shouted down by critical comments as everyone watches you on the Internet? We need privacy to make that messy start, to unleash our creativity. But there is not much privacy left in our modern world.

    Not when the United States National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting billions of records on the locations of mobile phones around the world.

    Not when US intelligence whistle-blower Edward Snowden's revelations continue to drag countries into rows over spying accusations.

    Not when the code in your browser that powers Facebook knows what you typed in the status-update box, even if you decide not to publish it, reported Slate Magazine. It knows about the time you changed your mind about posting that whiny, emo update.

    With Amazon now testing the use of drones to deliver packages, do not be surprised to one day see a small, unmanned aircraft peering into your window, laughing to itself at your sad attempt to exercise (New Year's resolution No. 1).

    Google completes you (as you type in the search box), not your other half. A movie trailer for the upcoming Spike Jonze film Her - about a writer (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his computer's highly advanced operating system, which calls itself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) - does not feel too far removed from an uncomfortable reality. In the film, Samantha asks the writer: "You mind if I look through your hard drive?"

    At least she bothers to ask first. Not so the NSA.

    A US judge struck a blow against the spy agency's bulk collection of phone records last Monday, ruling that it breached citizens' privacy to an "almost Orwellian" degree that was probably unconstitutional. Two plaintiffs, Mr Larry Klayman and Mr Charles Strange, filed a case against US President Barack Obama's administration after Mr Snowden revealed the vast scale of the NSA's digital dragnet.

    The Snowden snowball is rolling over diplomatic relations and chilling them as well. For countries to maintain warm ties, they need some secrecy to succeed at that - the space for saving face and for backroom deals.

    His revelations about countries snooping on one another force governments to play to their domestic political audiences; they have to assume the role of the strong, defiant or offended body, even if they are not too surprised by the allegations. The wiggle room for negotiations gets narrower.

    Of course, we want transparency in many important things, but leave some stones unturned, leave some cobwebs in the corner, leave some mystery in this modern life.

    Music is the space between the notes, said French composer Claude Debussy. But life feels more and more heavily notated. And here, play it dolce. There, play it crescendo.

    If we feel we cannot quite change the settings of the world to "private", perhaps we can pretend we have the privacy to fail. It is a mind game, but the results can be real as it sets us free to try new things. You know, like when they say to "dance like no one is watching".

    Meanwhile, do not be surprised when, one day, your mobile phone quietly burps in the corner from all your secrets it is digesting in its belly.