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Sarah Kendzior
Sarah Kendzior
Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.

Why email is and must remain private

Private communication, if monitored, will damage trust between individuals, making it harder to form relationships.
Last Modified: 27 Nov 2012 13:19
"Facing an increasing loss of control over our privacy settings, our reputations and our legal rights, we are told to police our speech and patrol our behaviour," writes author [AP]

When I was a child, my grandfather offered me some advice: "Don't do anything you wouldn't want to read about in the newspaper". To my nine-year-old self, this advice seemed strange, almost flattering. What could I possibly do that would be worthy of public interest? Why would anyone care?

Decades later, this advice still seems strange, but not for the reasons my grandfather envisioned. The internet has made us all the media, able to broadcast the indiscretions of ourselves and others with ease. What seemed horrifying to him - transgressions exposed to an audience of thousands, maybe even tens of thousands - now seems like a comparatively good deal. How quaint to experience personal humiliation on a local level, endured for a day instead of preserved for eternity.

The aftermath of the Petraeus scandal, in which the CIA director's emails to his mistress biographer were considered grounds for his resignation, has sparked debate on whether email should be considered private communication. "I assume that every single email is something that will be in the public domain," investor Peter Thiel, a board member of Facebook, proclaimed at a panel discussion on social media and politics hosted by The New Republic last week. He edits his emails meticulously, in anticipation of their inevitable reveal.

Corporations like Facebook and Google have long abandoned privacy as a tenable goal. Their CEOs tend to echo the moralising platitudes grandfathers use to keep their grandchildren in line. "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place," former Google CEO Eric Schmidt told CNBC in 2009. 

 Senior US General linked to Petraeus scandal

In 2011, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously declared that the erosion of privacy was "a social norm... that has evolved over time". Social media companies' constant shifts in privacy settings, always in the direction of increased openness, have led users to anticipate surveillance and intrusion, euphemistically branded as "sharing".

On social media networks, we have come to expect that what is private one day may be public the next, and that what we erased years ago may suddenly reappear in an archive. But this expectation did not hold, until recently, for email. Most people assume that the audience of their email is the person with whom they are emailing, and that once you delete the email, it is gone.

Security experts decry this viewpoint as hopelessly naïve. "Don't put anything in an email that you wouldn't send to your mother," says cyber security expert Jeff Ahlerich, in a manner yet again reminiscent of an elder scolding a child.

But we are not children. We are adults who cannot possibly maintain the energy or fortitude to police our every online interaction. That doing so is viewed as common sense raises basic questions of how we want to live our lives. We should not be asking how to police our emails, but what it means that we expect our emails to be policed - and what this expectation does to our ability to interact, express ourselves and change.

Celeb videos leaked

When I was in high school, Pamela Anderson, the star of Baywatch, married Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. On their honeymoon they made a sex tape, which was stolen from their home, released on the internet and marketed by entertainment firm IEG.

Anderson and Lee sued, but IEG argued that as celebrities, they had forfeited their right to privacy. Four years later, the now divorced couple won their case, but only after the video had become the best-selling porn title of all time.

The Pamela and Tommy video was followed by a slew of celebrity sex tape videos, many of which solidified the stardom of their career-deprived protagonists. While the novelty of Pamela and Tommy's "honeymoon" tape was what fuelled its success, over the years the shock value wore off and a celebrity sex tape came to be seen as a rote enterprise.

The onus fell on the celebrity to behave. They were chastised for being so stupid as to film their sexual activity and they were admonished with reminders that all publicity was good publicity, even when it came unwanted. They experienced, as Zuckerberg dubbed it, a "shift in social norms".

The same values that apply to the celebrity porn industry are now being applied to the online communication of ordinary people. While circulating embarrassing personal material on a public website has long been considered unwise, now the same warnings extend to semi-closed networks like Facebook - where one woman recently may lose her job due to an insulting photo she posted on her private page - and to emails sent from personal accounts.

The problem is that ordinary people lack the financial security, PR resources and media savvy to play to an unseen spotlight. We do not operate in the celebrity economy, where scandal can be its own reward, but we are as susceptible as celebrities to the mass schadenfreude of strangers. In a very literal sense, we cannot afford our moral failings. 

"On social media networks, we have come to expect that what is private one day may be public the next, and that what we erased years ago may suddenly reappear in an archive."

Facing an increasing loss of control over our privacy settings, our reputations and our legal rights, we are told to police our speech and patrol our behaviour. In short, we are told to behave like citizens of authoritarian states.

Self-censored life

Much has been made, in the aftermath of the Petraeus affair, of the effect of online surveillance on civil liberties. "When the CIA director cannot hide his activities online, what hope is there for the rest of us?" wrote privacy researcher Chris Soghoian, in a sharp take on the US government's surveillance capacity.

Numerous commentators have criticised government ability to access email and social media accounts. Less remarked upon are the psychological effects of expecting surveillance in the first place.

For the past seven years, I have conducted research on internet use in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, two authoritarian states with different approaches to online media. Uzbekistan censors all unsanctioned political content. Azerbaijan does not.

But citizens of both countries behave similarly online - because the issue is not censorship, but the self-censorship that arises from the expectation of surveillance. Accustomed to being monitored, citizens have learned to avoid controversial topics, to withhold their opinions, to adhere to rigid social and political norms - to behave, in other words, like everything they say can and will be used against them.

These are not systems one should want to emulate. But the erosion of online privacy - not only in a legal sense, but in the sense of shifting "social norms" - means we are moving toward a society in which we have less freedom to confide, to criticise, to make mistakes, to change our minds.

Surveillance societies are marked by lack of trust. Many have already lost their trust in governments and in corporations like Google and Facebook, all of whom have violated our privacy.

The expectation that private communication will be monitored will damage trust between individuals, making it harder to form relationships and exchange ideas. Email, the most intimate form of online communication, should be considered private by default and legal rights to privacy must be strengthened. The self-censored life is not worth living.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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