Is privacy really as lost in the digital world as it seems lately? Indeed, the indiscriminate coercion of almost everyone who operates in the digital world seems disproportionate to our personal and collective capacity to defend our privacy. But maybe we just don’t know how to delimit a private digital space yet and that’s why we don’t know what expectations to apply where. Or how would Spinoza put it: privacy lies in the recognition of necessity.
What led me to this article was the realization that sooner or later I always come to essentially the same solution when it comes to privacy in the digital space. The first time it fully developed for me was on the browser. I have limited its features for so long in the name of privacy that it has become unusable for much of normal traffic. I then slowly started using a second browser for general browsing. Not a different browser profile, but a completely different browser.
By default, the first browser has the most limited settings (including, for example, disabled JS), which I relax only to the extent necessary for services whose conditions I know and have been using for a long time. The other browser doesn’t have any special restrictions and I don’t mind clicking some consent here and there, but I always use it in incognito mode and I don’t log in anywhere, at least not with my basic identity and unless absolutely necessary.
I am now switching to a similar system with my mobile phone. The one I carry with me is my private one, where I handle my daily traffic - emails, notes, calendars, photos, etc. I’m not globally logged into any account (Google etc.) in it, and I choose the apps which I install and which connects to some services under my real identities very carefully. I leave my other, public phone at home (oh the irony), on which I have no problem installing any kind of crap, even Whatsapp, if someone wants me to, but everything under disposable identities, which includes the phone number as such.
The “public” phone also has all the official apps that a person needs for normal functioning (banks and so on). I then don’t have to worry whether their requests for access to the phone are legitimate or reasonable or if I trust them to stay that way. I consider the whole phone as the equivalent of a town square. Anyone can set up shop on it, but they won’t find out anything about me that I’m not willing to reveal to anyone. Not because I can hide it, but because I’m not going there with anything like that myself.
The concept of privacy arose in strong connection with physical reality. The boundary between private and public space is the fence around our house. It’s a voting curtain. It’s a toilet door. In the digital space, however, this intuition doesn’t make sense, and I’ve previously campaigned for a redefinition in terms of will exclusivity. In other words, the fact that I physically own a mobile phone does not say anything about whether the digital space in it is private or public, we determine that only by how we are using it.
The intuition that we can take from the previous idea of privacy, on the other hand, is how laborious private space actually is. You probably thought above that you won’t get much productivity with only applications available outside of the app story, which also work offline and without an account. That’s true, but by the same token, if you decide to dine at home instead of in a restaurant, it costs a lot of extra work and it won’t even be as good compared to better chefs. Yet we do its.
It is normal that when we want to visit a bank branch, we have to go out on a public street. We are sitting in a branch with other people and everyone can see our face and how we are dressed and the security personnel are watching over us. It’s okay as such and we act accordingly. But just like I don’t want to move this whole circus into my house in exchange for being able to stay in my pajamas while visiting a branch, I can’t run a bank access app on a device where I’m not ashamed to take pictures of myself in pajamas.
We have to abandon the intuition built on the physical idea of privacy and start building the intuition of abstract privacy. And we must be prepared for the fact that it is not possible to have the advantages of both in one place, whether physical or abstract.