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Interview: Technology Expert Worries About Privacy Erosion And The State Of Democracy

Private enough?
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has famously said that privacy is no longer "a social norm," that mores have shifted in such a way that people are no longer concerned about sharing information about themselves.

In a new book titled "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other," Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor and psychologist, argues that new information technologies are increasingly pushing people -- especially young people -- into surrendering their privacy. What's more, they are eroding the feeling that people even have a right to privacy or an expectation of privacy.

In addition to other concerns, Turkle argues that these changes pose a fundamental danger to democracy. She spoke about those and other issues with RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson.

RFE/RL: There is a nice anecdote in your book about how your grandmother taught you an important lesson about civil liberties and democracy. Could you tell us that story and why it is relevant now?

Sherry Turkle
Sherry Turkle: I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and I lived with my grandparents. Every morning my grandmother would take me down to the mailboxes and she would say, in a Yiddish accent -- and I can't do the accent -- but she would say, "It is a federal offense," she'd point to this row of mailboxes in this Brooklyn apartment house and she'd say, "It is a federal offense to tamper with the U.S. mail." And she would describe how in the old country the government had spied on its citizens by using the mail and how in this country -- and the reason we were in this country -- is that here it was a federal offense to do that. She would say, "This is what America is about and this is why we are here."

And she sort of taught me to be a civil libertarian; she taught me to be a United States citizen; she taught me what it was to have privacy and democracy by looking at these mailboxes and talking about these mailboxes. It was a kind of concretization of the importance of privacy to democracy. And where am I to take my 19-year-old daughter when she can look at her iPhone and see little dots on her iPhone about where her friends are, when we are so free to give up information about ourselves, when we don't know really who is reading our mail, when Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook says that privacy is no longer part of the social discourse? We live in such a different world now, and technology is complicit in that world and I'm very concerned about this.

RFE/RL: There has been a lot of talk about the benefits of cell phones and social networks and online communities for democracy movements and rights movements around the world, including in RFE/RL's region. But your book is less sanguine. What are your concerns about the dangers of a constantly connected life for healthy democracy?

Turkle: I think that there is a question about what is intimacy without privacy, and what is democracy without privacy. We are too quick to think that democracy does not need a zone of personal privacy around the individual. And I don't think that's right. I think that democracy requires a zone of personal privacy around the individual, and that we are forgetting that in our kind of infatuation with how much social networking can bring to democracy.

And it doesn't take away from how much social networking and how much the Internet can bring to democracy and to democratic movements and to social revolutions to say, "Look, we also need to be respectful of how mature democracy depends -- depends -- on the individual having a realm and a right to privacy." And I think that we need to be able to keep complicated ideas in mind at the same time.
We need to be respectful of how mature democracy depends -- depends -- on the individual having a realm and a right to privacy.

And just because flash mobs and organizing and sharing information are dependent and reliant on social networking doesn't mean that we don't also need a realm of privacy to live in a mature democracy. I think that we need to be able to think these complicated thoughts, and people need to be able to protest and need a certain amount of privacy in order to get their thoughts together, and certainly need privacy in their e-mails.

I mean, the first thing in the United States that got protected, that the founding fathers knew to protect, was the privacy of the mail. People need that space to have seditious ideas -- they do! And you can't take that space -- that's a sacred space -- to say things and have thoughts that the government might not like. And that should not be taken away, even in tough times. And I think we are losing sight of that.

RFE/RL: But many observers -- perhaps most -- have been arguing that social networks like Facebook and Twitter are real boons to democracy movements, human rights activism, and the like.

Turkle: I'm not putting them down. I'm putting them in their place. Individuals need to be in charge of when they reveal their identities. And what the U.S. mail did, by making it illegal to open up someone else's mail, by making the communication privileged, was to give people control, complete control -- except if someone was breaking the law -- over when their identity would be revealed and to whom. And that's the kind of thing that's eroding on the social network.

And also you have a discourse about the social network that often stops at a very simplistic level like, "Information wants to be free," that all information wants to be free. And you have the gurus of the social network and of the Internet saying things like, "If you want something to be secret, you probably shouldn't be doing it in the first place." These are the kinds of things that the leaders of the Internet revolution say -- the notion that if you're doing something that you don't want known, you shouldn't be doing it. And, of course, Mark Zuckerberg's most recent comment that privacy is no longer relevant to the social discourse. What I think he's saying is that privacy is no longer relevant, is no longer helpful, to the social network.

But there are things that may not be helpful to the social network that may be very helpful to mature democracy. And that's the kind of distinction that I'm trying to get people to think about. I think people do need a zone of privacy. And one of the things that I've found in my many hundreds of interviews with people -- and particularly with teenagers, which is the moment when these ideas are first formed and thought of -- is that teenagers have very confused ideas about what their rights to privacy are.

People are too quick to say, "Oh, they don't care about privacy." They actually care quite a bit about privacy, but they don't know what their rights are. Teenagers don't know if they have a right to privacy. They don't know if their teachers have a right to look at their Facebook page and messages. Teenagers will say, "Can the police look at my message? Can my teachers look at my messages? Can the school look at my messages?" They think that colleges look at their messages. They think that employers look at their messages. They think that other people read their e-mail and that it's legal for other people to read their e-mails.

So there is a sense in which they are very much at sea and don't really have a sense of what is legal, what's OK. And this has a really chilling effect, and I don't think it is good for people to grow up in that kind of polity -- where people really don't know what their rights are.

RFE/RL: But isn't it also true that people are being increasingly drawn into these networks and pushed to reveal information about themselves by peer pressure and by their own desires not to miss out on fun and opportunities?

Turkle: Yes, many forces are coming into play here. There is the market offering tools that make it cool to use applications that demand that we tell each other where we are all the time and people saying, "That's the app I want," "That's the party I want to be a part of." The new games are location-based; and to be a part of this party, you tell people where you are. But, you know, I think that we have to begin to cast a cool eye on the kind of self-surveillance that we are buying into.
People are too quick to say, oh, they don't care about privacy. They actually care quite a bit about privacy, but they don't know what their rights are. Teenagers don't know if they have a right to privacy. They don't know if their teachers have a right to look at their Facebook page and messages.

And from my point of view, we are being asked to play a dangerous game in which we all become participants in a level of self-surveillance -- whether it is called a game; whether it is called a new, cool way of life; whether we're given extraordinarily fun things to do with it -- we are participants in a level of self-surveillance that I think only a few years ago, we would have found the language to be very critical of. And I think the time has come to -- one of my favorite lines in my book, if an author is allowed to have a favorite line, says just because we grew up with the Internet, we think the Internet is all grown up. That just because we have become used to it, we think that this is it in its maturity.

And I think that really it is in its baby stages -- and one of the ways it is in its baby stages is that perhaps we have become coarsened in some ways about some directions we've allowed it to go, sort of when we weren't paying attention. And one of the directions that I found it has gone is in a coarsening in what it has done to our notions of civil society, to our lives as citizens, and to the kinds of protections we want as citizens. I think in the area of privacy we are going to be seeing some push-back because I think that growing up with this sense of continual sense of self-surveillance is going to come back to bite us. I don't think in the long term it is going to serve us.

RFE/RL: Tell us about the MyLifeBits project and LifeBrowser. Are projects like these the inevitable direction technology is heading and what are the possible unintended consequences?

Turkle: I've been talking in the first part of our conversation about where I think self-surveillance raises my political concerns. The MyLifeBits project raises more my concerns as a psychologist. The MyLifeBits project is where you self-survey your whole life for the purpose of having a life record that you can refer to, to pass on to generations, to have a sense of immortality. [In this project] people wear cameras all the time and wear microphones and essentially take pictures and record every moment of their lives. And then they give it to the computer to file and sort and put into patterns that the computer finds meaningful. And you try to help the computer along to give it some shape, but basically the computer does a lot of the shaping by itself because you couldn't possibly have the time to both live the life and then shape the life.

In a way, it is a kind of offloading of the making of meaning out of a life by giving it to the computer to make the meaning for you. Again, you have to think about what are the pleasures of reflection and editing and thinking about what the meaningful moments in a life are that we are avoiding in a kind of fantasy of not having to think about our lives by capturing all of our lives. I think it is a fantasy of avoiding death. I think it is a fantasy of not having to reflect...on what we've done and what we've made that, again, I don't think is serving us well. And that's a concern to me.

RFE/RL: Imagine for a moment that you are an autocrat in a techno-savvy country or even just a politician who is interested in having a less engaged, more easily manipulated, more easily monitored, more easily controlled populace. Do you think, on balance, the emergence of the constantly connected society is a good thing or a bad thing for such people?

Turkle: I think in the long run the possibilities for social control are very much in the mind of any autocrat. For anybody who is interested in maintaining social control, this is technology with a lot of possibilities. It is Janus-faced! It goes both ways. But one of the things that concerns me most is that in countries where we have precious liberties, how freely we volunteer ourselves for social control through the game-ification of our lives. We are willing to play games that essentially give information about aspects of our lives that really would better be kept private. And that's really the focus of my current work -- why we are so easily seduced into game-ifying our lives in ways that really aren't in our political best interest.

RFE/RL: When I was reading your book, I could imagine a young person in a country like Iran or Russia who is leading a normal teenage life in a connected society, participating in social networks and the like and leaving the usual online trail. Then that person later in life decides to become an activist or a dissident -- it would seem to be a real problem, having a long record of one's views, one's friends, one's influences potentially available. Could all this technology be the end of dissent?

Turkle: You're taking, obviously, an example of a society where we already know that there is every reason to think that information will be used in ways that could hurt them. But I'm arguing that we are taking a lot for granted all over the world if we assume benign governments or benign corporations will never use the vast amounts of information that we are putting on line against us. And we are giving ourselves very little protection and I think that's really a problem.

There was a wonderful article in "The New York Times" that compares the United States Constitution with the terms of service of Facebook, and I think it was about 3,500 words versus 350,000 words, with the 3,500 being the United States Constitution and the 350,000 words being the Facebook terms of service. You have a corporation -- people aren't reading those terms of service, and [terms of service] change and they shift and keep moving, a kind of moving target. And it's not really responsive -- you know, Facebook will try something out to see what they can get away with and then they'll pull back and push back. But gradually -- what I've found in my work -- is that you build up a service that people feel they can't do without. They put their lives there; they sense that their social lives are there; and they'll try to make it work for them. But more and more they sense that that is where their lives are.

I think that it is never good to assume that where your life is is in the hands of a benign owner, and I think that's what is starting to happen. And I think's adolescents are the generation that is going to have to come to terms with this as a way of life that needs to be brought into check in some way. And I think I'm optimistic, because I do think that I see evidence that people are becoming more savvy about this way of life that has its pitfalls. And I think people are going to become more savvy and begin to demand basic forms of privacy as part of what it is to be a citizen in a digital age. And I want to say that I'm very forgiving of all of us as we try to get our bearings in this new world because we've just barely begun to live in it and I think it has taken us all very much by surprise.

But I think it is time to recalibrate how we behave with our cell phones, how we don't pay attention to each other or pay attention to our children, how we don't allow ourselves solitude, how our hyperconnected ways take us away from our families and from connections that are really meaningful. I mean, we're not thinking -- we're just responding to thousands of e-mails a day and thousands of texts a day -- and we've made a lot of moves that haven't been necessarily helpful. And I certainly think that our trading privacy for a kind of sociability that feels like fun is one of the things that we are going to rethink.