Why Privacy Matters, A Real-World Example

Earlier this month, someone I went to school with a long time ago was arrested and charged with some fairly serious crimes. I wouldn’t call him a friend in pre-social media terms, but we knew each other a long time ago, and that’s good enough in the era of Facebook. Which is telling.

I found out about the arrest through his friends posting on his Facebook page, which showed up on my Facebook news feed. Curiosity engaged, a quick search with Big Brother G turned up reports from the local newspaper and television station, which had some pretty gory detail of the accusations. Of course, in the USA, suspects are innocent until proven guilty, right? And these are unproven accusations, right?

Within an hour, the article text from one of the two primary sources spread throughout at least two dozen sites. Whether they are affiliates, or simply stole the content is irrelevant. The information, including the name of the suspect and all the details of what he allegedly did, are now out in the open. And with tools like the Internet Archive (AKA the Wayback Machine) and Google, they can never be sequestered. His life, as he knows it, is over.

When I studied journalism many years ago, we discussed the ethics of police log and courtroom reporting at length. The need to balance the public’s right to know and a subject’s right to privacy was central to those discussions. We knew that publishing misleading information could destroy the life of an innocent person. There was a lot of talk about the difference between a private person and a public figure. Simply because something was in the public record didn’t make it newsworthy, and we understood the tenet of innocent until proven guilty; anonymous and alleged references were common.

Perhaps the new generation of journalists didn’t participate in similar discussions. In the last few years, the local newspaper where I grew up, the San Luis Obispo Tribune, started putting every suspect’s mug shot (for non-Americans, that’s the picture the police take of a suspect when they are booked into jail) online, along with the details of any alleged crime the suspect has committed. While technically legal — the Tribune is not overtly presuming guilt — very few of those on the booking sheets are public figures, and I would argue that there is no public interest served. This practice is little more than gossipmongering, and anyone who purports to be a journalist and participates in it should be ashamed.

Even worse for my old classmate, and stereotypically so for those of us with a print versus broadcast bias, the local television news station, KSBY, decided to go out on the street to solicit responses to a presumably innocent man being charged with a crime that he denies. They gave airtime to the man’s flustered boss, who didn’t know quite what to say, and a local lady who doesn’t like the man’s house, because his curtains are usually drawn when she walks her dog past it. And, yes, this report was also put up online.

Perhaps you would argue that the fault here is not one of lack of privacy, but the ethics of the journalists involved. I agree, however, in the interconnected world anyone can push an agenda and watch it spread. The nature of journalism has fundamentally changed, and the role of the journalist as gatekeeper of the spread of news is long over. Now we pull news with search engines as often as we are pushed it by editors. Sometimes the pull, like Google News, is packaged automatically for us. Algorithms will get better, and as more of our personal data seeps out onto the public Internet, we will be hard pressed to control it. Once you do something people seem to find interesting, it will be available for more and more people to see.

And, there is no such thing as exclusively local news now — as evidenced by the spread of news of my old classmate’s arrest. Memories are stored in the cloud now, not on yellowing newsprint, and the lifespan has gone from years to infinity. There is no way to pull back what has already been released into the wild — the information multiplies like the rabbits outside Stanstead Airport. And a retraction or update, usually buried on an interior page and not even addressed by broadcast news, is much less juicy than an accusation; good luck getting it carried by a dozen more websites.

The European Unions’s Right to be Forgotten is, at best, a bandage over a seeping wound. Google wasn’t Google 20 years ago, and the next sea-change will be just as profound. Until we realise that our data, our reputation and person, are integral to our freedom, we cannot affect a change in the world. Most people don’t even know why they might want to do so.

Perhaps the story of my old classmate can serve some purpose there. Without being proven guilty of any crime, his reputation has been ruined for all time. A quick search online will, now and forever, turn up the details of this arrest. Presuming his innocence (as is the law), that is the opposite of American ideals. If he is guilty, a report on conviction removes any need to report on the arrest.

This both an issue of privacy and of journalistic ethics, so the lines are a bit blurred, but no matter what your opinion on this case, the reality is that there is nothing stopping the same thing happening to you tomorrow. Even if you have nothing to hide, you have something to protect.

P.S. While I’ve tried to anonymise things as much as possible, there are enough identifiers here to find the case, if you care to.