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These days we live a life that generates its own electronic shadow. Over time, most people find a way to ignore or deny it. And over time, particularly for those who have grown up in our new regime of surveillance, leaving an electronic trace can come to feel so natural that the shadow seems to disappear. So, for example, a 17-year-old girl thinks that Facebook “can see everything,” and even though “you can try to get Facebook to change things,” it is really out of her hands. Another girl says that even without privacy, she feels safe because “no one would care about my little life.” For all the talk of a generation empowered by the Net, today’s teens are sure that at some point their privacy will be invaded but believe that this is the cost of doing business in their world.
I grew up with grandparents whose families had fled from governments that spied on their citizens. My grandmother was proud to be in America, where things were different. Every morning we went together to the mailboxes of our apartment building. And on many days she would tell me, as if it had never come up before: “In America, no one can look at your mail. It’s a federal offense.” For me, this civics lesson at the mailbox joined together privacy and civil liberties. I think of how different things are for today’s teenagers, who accommodate the idea that their e-mail might be scanned by school authorities. Not a few sum up their position by saying in one way or another, “The way to deal is to just be good.”
But sometimes a citizenry should not “be good.” You have to leave room for this—space for dissent, real dissent. You need to leave technical space (a sacrosanct mailbox) and mental space. The two are intertwined. We make our technologies, and they, in turn, make and shape us. I am not sure what to tell the 18-year-old who thinks that Loopt (the application that uses the GPS capability of cell phones to show you where your friends are) seems creepy but notes that it would be hard to keep it off her phone if all her friends had it. “They would think I had something to hide.”
In a democracy, perhaps we all need to begin with the assumption that everyone has something to hide, a zone of private action and reflection, a zone that needs to be protected. My hope is that we rediscover our need for privacy. To me, opening up a conversation about rethinking the Net, privacy, and civil society is not backward-looking nostalgia in the least. It seems like part of a healthy process of democracy defining its sacred spaces.
Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science at MIT, is the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.