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Our embrace of the end of privacy comes at a cost

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Here are some experiences that undoubtedly place my upbringing at a specific time. I remember an era when working behind a till or at a café meant coming home smelling of other people’s smoke. I remember the terror of having to call my then girlfriend’s landline while hoping that her parents wouldn’t pick up first — and I still get a Proustian rush when I recall what it was like when the advent of the mobile phone meant that we could communicate without fear of familial intrusion.

For reasons I suspect are closely connected to both of these things, I have always been a techno-optimist. One of the things I got wrong as a result was privacy. I thought that by the time I reached middle age, the concept of privacy, at least in the rich world, would have changed as much as our collective relationship with the internet did in my teens and twenties. Namely, no one would care about what we said or did, outside of overt expressions of violence.

I nodded along with Scott McNealy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, when he said in 1999 that consumers had “zero privacy”, and when, a decade later, Mark Zuckerberg declared that “the age of privacy as a social norm” was over, I thought that sounded like good news. My assumption was that, because many of our mis-steps were on clear display online, we would, for reasons of self-preservation if nothing else, be forced to adopt a position of liberal indifference in our immediate professional circles much of the time. People would continue to moderate their views in polite company but they would operate differently in public. Essentially, I believed, the division between Meta and LinkedIn would increasingly define the world: personal conversations among family and friends on Facebook, professional conversations on LinkedIn.

My predictions have not held up. Yes, our collective appetite to exchange privacy for better customer services is still astonishingly high. Very few of us choose or even aspire to be off the grid: in fact, people who have a much higher aversion than I do to, say, sharing their medical records, will happily buy a fridge that connects to the internet, or protect their homes with a “smart lock”. As Sir Nick Clegg often jokes, Facebook is wildly unpopular, other than with its 3bn active users. Data-sharing, whether to allow governments to spy on domestic threats, catch criminals or better understand a nation’s health, continues to be a fact of modern life. And as our hobbies and business take place increasingly online, so do more of our social lives and political engagement.

But while the age of privacy has ended as far as the businesses of states and corporations are concerned, it has not ushered in an era of liberal indifference when it comes to individuals. Take the three US students who had their offers to work at the law firm Davis Polk initially rescinded after their involvement with a letter that held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence”. Bill Ackman, of the Pershing Square hedge fund, and other chief executives called for all the signatories to be named to avoid hiring any of them “inadvertently”.

“Inadvertently” in this instance seems to mean a desire to avoid the nightmare of hiring someone based on their relevant skills and experience, rather than their views when out of the office. I’m all for full-service firms, but I am not going to choose my lawyer based on their moral code or grip of Middle Eastern politics anytime soon.

Similar examples can be found on both the left and the right — and anyone with a decent memory will know that stories like this are nothing new. Indeed, I find it comforting that, just as when I was a student, the people signing the most strident far-left statements were also lining up traineeships at prestigious multinational law firms. Frankly, that suggests to me that, while the arguments in the letter are worth engaging with, the career choices of the signatories aren’t.

But such incidents have a chilling effect on speech while also making it less likely that people will evolve in their thinking. Given that most of us are wrong quite a lot of the time, that is something of a problem.

We’ve always formed friendships and social connections around a shared set of values and attitudes. Most of us will, on occasion, keep our opinions to ourselves at a family gathering. And we’ve always, in the workplace, presented ourselves differently than we do at home. What I failed to anticipate was that a life lived online would be one in which people had to do all of these things all the time. That people now seek jobs on Facebook and love on LinkedIn and that this reduces, rather than expands, the number of places we feel able to admit fault or talk freely without consequences.

stephen.bush@ft.com

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