No Such Thing as Privacy

September 2006

by Raymond J. Aguilera

 

There's no such thing as privacy anymore. Anyone with an Internet connection and a few hours or minutes could probably find out more information about you than you'd feel comfortable sharing with a stranger on a street corner.

In fact, if you're reading this right now, I can tell where you live, how long you spent reading BENT, and whether you got here from a Yahoo search for “gay disabled” or if you Googled “hot amputee sex” instead (it happens...a lot). And that's without really even trying.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those “sky is falling” privacy freaks. I support folks like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other organizations dedicated to consumer privacy, but there are certain things that just don't bother me. I don't care that my neighborhood chain grocery store knows that I buy lots of goat cheese and Full Sail Amber Ale. I don't care that Apple Computer knows most of the music I buy (recently: Morrissey, Grant Lee Phillips, Matmos, and the new Justin Timberlake single). Information like that is benign, as far as I'm concerned. But there's a lot more information about me, and about many of us, freely available on the Internet. A lot of it we put there ourselves.

I'm reminded of this fact every time a casual acquaintance Googles me and discovers BENT. Anything I consider a bona fide secret would never make it into these pages. But just because something isn't secret doesn't mean it isn't personal. After all, the personal is BENT's stock in trade. If it weren't for the courageous souls who write for BENT, and open little windows into their lives, BENT wouldn't exist.

I'd be lying if I told you it wasn't somewhat awkward when someone I know casually mentions that they've read my writing. If it isn't someone I feel particularly close to, I always pause to think about what they might have read. Was it some business writing from years ago? A restaurant review from last week? A posting to an old Beach Boys message board, which is where I spent most of my time online as an undergraduate. Or, did they read something in BENT, which is a lot more personal by definition?

Recently, AOL made a big chunk of aggregated search data available on the Internet. They were working on the assumption that the data might be interesting to researchers. They also assumed that, by not identifying individual people, privacy would be maintained. Within days, reporters for the New York Times matched several real live people to their Internet searches, including 62-year-old Thelma Arnold of Lilburn, Georgia. From her searches, we know where she lives, that she searched for information on several medical conditions, that she might be considering selling her home, that she has three dogs, and that she was searching for single men in their 60's.

In April, photographer and techno-pundit Thomas Hawk posted a blog entry (to his personal website) on his opinions of the work of another photographer, Jill Greenberg. Greenberg photographs children in states of distress, and the methods she uses to create those images are controversial, to say the least. Greenberg was unhappy with the criticism from Hawk, and in the following weeks tracked down Hawk's employer, and called his boss in an attempt to pressure Hawk into removing his opinions about her work from the Internet.

If reporters can track down grannies looking for love, and artists can attempt to threaten their way out of being criticized, where does that leave all of us? As queer crips, we're already vulnerable on two fronts. Our privacy and sense of self has already been invaded. By banding together and speaking our truths on the infinitely public Internet airwaves, we gain power, but at what cost?

Clearly, standing up and standing out has it's own potential pitfalls. It would certainly be easier and safer to be quiet, remain anonymous, but what would we lose in the process?

© 2006 Raymond J.Aguilera

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Raymond J. Aguilera is Managing Editor of BENT.