Remarks at the 2019 Privacy and Data Governance Congress
October 23, 2019
Thank you so much. Hello, bonjour and tansi.
Delighted to be with you here today on Treaty 7 land, the traditional home of the Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, Stoney-Nakoda, and Tsuut’ina First Nations and the Metis people.
Et je suis fière d’être ici avec vous aujourd’hui.
I spent the first 30 years of my working life as a journalist – as an investigative reporter and political columnist, to be precise.
Which means I spent 30 years battling public bodies – fighting to get access to records from various orders of government and from a wide variety of public agencies, with varying degrees of success.
Freedom of information, access to information – those were my mantras.
But while I always felt a crusading zeal to force governments and other public bodies to turn over documents that ought to have been made public, I’ve always been equally obsessed with the mirror virtue of privacy protection.
I put some of the blame for this on Mr. Dempsey, my grade 7 language arts teacher.
He assigned us to read Animal Farm, by George Orwell.
I loved the book. I was somewhat obsessed by it. And so, in the spirit of the sheep’s chant of “Four legs good, two legs better!” – I decided that if Animal Farm was good, 1984 must be better!
And so, I read George Orwell’s 1984, at the age of 12.
This was – let it be said – a tactical error.
I was too young for the full horror of Orwell’s book.
It was the inspiration for my nightmares for weeks – most of them involving rats eating my face – but other involving being watched by Big Brother.
That Orwellian nightmare of constant observation haunted me, both waking and sleeping.
And perhaps because I read it as a pre-teen, a junior high student, the horror seemed all too believable. After all, at that age, you first become truly aware that you are under constant observation, whether at home or at school, that you have no time when you are not under someone’s watchful eye. A junior high school is a perfect panopticon – without the naïve innocence of elementary school or the relative freedom of high school. Maybe that’s why my brain was scarred, hot branded by Orwell’s dark vision forever more.
But I don’t think it was just Orwell who spooked me. When I was in grade 3, Mrs. Spaner, another well-intentioned teacher, suggested I read Anne Frank’s fairy tales, the ones she wrote when she was still a child herself. I think the teacher reasoned that because my dad was Jewish, Anne Frank would be my cup of tea.
But just as in the case of Mr. Dempsey and George Orwell, I read too much too soon. Having read Anne Frank’s charming fiction, I naturally decided I should read the diary that made her so famous. Somehow, no one stopped to think whether a Holocaust memoir was appropriate reading for a child of eight.
For weeks after, I searched my house, figuring out strategic places my family could hide, when the Nazis came. As a child of Jewish and German descent, whose families suffered under both Nazism and Stalinism, I never had any illusions that the police would always be on my side, that the state could always be trusted. I never ever bought the argument that if I had nothing to hide, I should have nothing to worry about.
All my life, I have been keenly aware that the state is not always a benign actor – and that government surveillance was always problematic.
And so, I was disturbed, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks of 2001, to see how quickly people were willing to give up privacy, in the name of safety and security.
We now accept weirdly intrusive airport searches, which bear no relationship to the degree of threat presented by the particular people being poked and prodded and scanned. We treat as normal the most absurd and arbitrary restrictions on what we can and cannot take aboard an aircraft, rules that seem to change, on the whim of the security gods.
We have allowed our fundamental civil liberties and privacy rights to be gradually eroded, on so many fronts, from civil forfeiture to mandatory minimum sentences, all in the name of public safety, whether the bogeyman du jour is a terrorist or a garden variety criminal.
We have become a surveillance culture, inured to being monitored wherever we go by security cameras, traffic cameras, nanny cameras, baby monitor cameras, front door bell cameras. We cling to the naive belief that we’ve made a reasonable trade-off, that we’ve sacrificed any social expectation that we have a right not to be constantly observed and recorded in the name of crime prevention and general safety – and general social convenience.
We haven’t opposed Big Brother – we’ve embraced him like a long-lost kinsman. As a society, we’ve leaped to buy cars and cellphones equipped with GPS, so we can be tracked wherever we go. We’ve embraced warm and cuddly home devices such as Alexa and Google Home, which eavesdrop on our most intimate domestic conversations – while who knows who at Amazon or Google central listens in.
People subscribe to various social media sites, which tell the world where they are, in real time.
They sign up for services like Gmail, which allow corporate robots to spy on personal email, the better to personalize consumer advertising. They spy on their neighbours, too, taking and posting compromising pictures, be it of sexual indiscretions, or negligent bus drivers or drunken hockey hooligans or poor parking jobs.
Some of this has been driven by technical innovation. But it’s a chicken-and-egg paradigm shift. The technology would never have found a market niche if our culture hadn’t first undergone a quiet but profound shift in the way people think about privacy, and the value they attach to it.
But it isn’t just fear or paranoia that has caused us to fling away our sense of privacy.
I think it’s something far far more profound – and more deeply psychological.
And it has to do with the way we’ve constructed the culture of privacy itself – and with the forces of social alienation.
For thousands of years, of course, we had no sense of privacy, as we know it today.
People lived together – they had to. They needed each other for safety. For warmth. For survival.
The earliest hunter gatherers lived together in tribes, of course. The earliest farm families lived together intergenerationally. The whole idea of private bedrooms, for example, would have been completely foreign for most people in human history, who expected to sleep together.
Even in a culture such as Ancient Rome, which was a far more sophisticated and urbane society, people went to clean themselves as communal public baths, and went to relieve themselves in communal public toilets, which had no walls or dividers, where people – well, pooped – cheek to cheek.
Medieval peasants, like the earliest agrarian cultures, lived together in multigenerational family homes or inside forts and castles. And even the nobility had no privacy, as we think of it today. A royal consummation often had official witnesses, as did a royal birth. Kings conducted state business from their bedchambers, and royal deaths sometimes had audiences to rival royal births.
By the 1800s, there were more nuclear family homes, of the type we know today. But even then, few middle or upper middle-class families existed without live-in servants. And if you were rich? Well then, you had dozens of people dressing and bathing you and observing your intimate family moments.
No, personal privacy, such as we think of it today, is a relatively modern phenomenon, a 20thcentury evolution.
At the same time, the late 19thand early 20thcentury saw a rise in social mobility – by which I don’t mean going up and down in class – but literally moving from place to place. Millions of people left their families behind, and travelled to new countries, such as a Canada or Australia or Brazil, or the United States, uprooting themselves and starting over thousands and thousands of miles away. And in North America, we became a land of modern high tech nomads, where it was commonplace for people, not to stay in their ancestral villages, as it were, but to move, as a matter of routine, criss-crossing the continent to go to school, pursue a career, or take a retirement.
And so, at the same time we became more private, and more isolated, we also became more detached and more separated from friends and family.
We became a culture that made a fetish out of independence, a culture that celebrated living alone – or at least, living with as few other people as possible, a culture that view connection as dependency and as the antithesis of freedom.
But as some point – living in splendid isolation becomes a recipe for social alienation and intense loneliness.
That is, after all, the tension at the centre of human existence: whether we want the perfect liberty of living without connections to others, or whether we want the sense of belonging and identity that comes from living in an interdependent community.
And this, I think, is why – after decades of creating a culture where we were as disconnected as possible – this is why the technology of connection appeals to us so deeply. It gives us, simultaneously, the illusion of utter independence and the illusion of social relationships.
Why am I on Facebook – especially when I know how problematic it is? It’s not primarily so that I can promote my work as a Senator – it’s so I can stay connected to friends and family. Yes, it gives me a warm cozy feeling to use Facebook to stay connected to my grad school classmates, to talk across time zones with my cousins in Germany, to exchange a dozen messages a day to my daughter, who’s away at law school in another province. Sure, I like the convenience of Facebook – but I also like the feeling of being part of an interconnected web of love – even if distance and time attenuate us.
There’s a reason that social media platforms like Instagram and Tik-Tok and Peach are so attractive to younger users. It’s the reason online gamers like to play together. Those online activities give them the happy buzz that comes from human connection. Literally, it seems, since studies have found that using social media to connect can lead to the flooding of one’s brain with oxytocin, the same hormone that we produce when we breast feed a baby or make love.
It’s for much the same reason that people bring anthropomorphic devices such as Alexa and Google into their homes. It’s a completely different emotional experience to talk to something that seems to talk back to you, to engage you in human conversation, than to look something up with your keyboard. Never mind that Alexa is always listening. That, in and of itself, gives us a sense of connection and contentment.
That’s why people like you, and people like me, can lecture all we like about the dangers and risks of sharing so much personal information online, why we can lecture till we’re blue in the face about the dark sides of digital platforms which collect and resell our most personal, intimate information.
Even people who listen and understand the perils and consequences, rationally, are hooked on the feeling of being of the virtual social embrace.
And I think there’s another profound psychological truth at play here. We like to be watched. And I don’t just mean in a narcissistic, Donald Trumpian, sense.
For thousands of years, human being believed that the gods, singular or plural, were watching over them. Most of the world’s great religions have been based on that paradigm of observation – whether the deities in question were benevolent or malevolent.
Sometimes, we were the happy sheep being watched over by a good shepherd. Sometimes, a more vengeful god (or goddess) was watching to back sure we didn’t misbehave. But for thousands of years, people believed they were living their lives before a supernatural audience, of power spectators who were evaluating our behaviour.
Sometimes, that thought was terrifying. Other times, it was supremely comforting.
But as our society has become more and more secular, fewer and fewer people believe in the same way in a God who watches over all – or even a Santa who sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake.
And, as I was thinking about this speech, it occurred to me that on some level, perhaps, we miss that. We miss that sense of being seen and heard and cared about. Perhaps we even miss that sense of being judged.
Perhaps this was George Orwell’s deepest insight. Maybe Winston Smith and his countrymen love Big Brother – not despite the fact that he surveilles them, but because of it.
And maybe, that’s why, on some unconscious level, we don’t find it creepy that Google tracks our every purchase, or monitors the content of our private emails.
Or creepy that our phone, which we never put down, knows where we are at all time – and records our health history,
Maybe that’s why we’re happy to play some viral online game that asks us for the name of our first pet, or the make of our first car, even when those are popular secret bank security questions.
Maybe we are, frankly, careless and stupid about our privacy and security, because deep down, we like to feel watched. We like to feel that someone, somewhere, someone bigger and more important, is paying attention to us.
As I was writing this speech, I suddenly remembered that the first dance at our wedding was George and Ira Gershwin’s powerful love song, Someone to Watch Over Me.
“I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood, I know I could, always be good, for one who watched over me.”
I’ve always seen that song as deeply romantic. But I think it speaks to a powerful longing, one that can be exploited by bad actors, if it is isn’t met in a more wholesome way.
It isn’t just coercive power of the state. Or the economic hegemony of the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos.
It’s that our 21stcentury culture, filled with people who feel rootless, lonely, disconnected, powerless, and unimportant, is ripe for exploitation by those who would feed upon our alienation and ennui.
And the more isolated and ignored we feel, the more vulnerable we are to people using our technology against us.
As a Senator – and one who recently served on the Standing Senate committee on Transportation and Communication – I wish I had an easy answer to the hollowing out of our modern soul.
And to the emotional power of social media.
But I don’t.
I only know that nature abhors a vacuum. And when there is something missing at the centre of our lives, we look for something to replace it.
I accept, of course, that as a public figure, I have made a bit of a deal with the devil. First as a newspaper pundit, and now as a politician, I have surrendered some of my privacy for the rather dubious benefit of public notoriety.
That’s been a burden on my family too….although I’ve always tried to shelter them from it, to the best of my abilities.
But I’m not talking about that kind of trade-off, made with my eyes at least partially open.
I’m talking about the kind of trade-offs we seem prepared to make, as a social community.
We have all colluded in a cultural conspiracy, to sacrifice our simple right to be unobserved, in the name of safety, convenience, and social cohesion.
How Jeremy Bentham might marvel, to see us entertaining ourselves, in our virtual panopticon, which we’ve chosen to construct and enter of our own volition.
The grave’s a fine and private place, the poet Andrew Marvell tells us.
It may soon be the only private place we have left.