Imagine a world with no privacy

29 Feb 24

What if everyone could know every detail about any person? What if, Matrix-style, you could upload into your brain, on demand, every intimate life experience and detail about any person that you meet? Every weakness and insecurity, every sin and virtue, every insane thought and unrequited longing, every proclivity, kink and quirk, every scar and tattoo, naked and exposed? No fact about a person, in this thought experiment, could be kept private. Privacy simply does not exist.

Would humanity become more empathetic and less judgmental? Would we evolve to absolute conformity? Would we lose autonomy and dignity, or would dignity be redefined? Would creativity and innovation suffer, or would we devise new, previously unimagined means of collaboration?

Would we remain committed to our egos, or become one with nature?

We are egoists while nature is altruistic. Therefore, having our privacy removed currently seems like a nightmare to most. It all depends on how well connected we are: If we realize our connections harmoniously, where we each support and encourage each other to construct altruistic attitudes to each other above our innate egoistic drives, then we would feel completely secure, safe and confident, and we would have no fear of losing our privacy.

A similar thought experiment is posed in a Gizmodo piece entitled, What Would Happen If All Personal Data Leaked at Once? The author poses that question to various thought leaders, professors, and hackers. Speculations range from the terrifying to the benign.

Short term implications include the predictable "firings, divorces, losses-of-face, arrests—for revelations of embezzlements, abuses, and worse—threats of lawsuits …, and of course massive disclosure of hypocrisy."

One would expect to see a massive breakdown in human relationships.

The ability to keep secrets is actually essential for human interaction. Not everyone wants or needs to know your opinion of everything all the time. I may not like the shirt you’re wearing, but that shouldn’t cause awkwardness in our interaction on a given day. We manage what we reveal to other people in ways that often make social interactions better.

That said, some speculate that the implications would take time as the vast majority of people would tend to their own abrupt exposures, due to the "spotlight effect."

What would happen if one day, we all woke up to find that with a quick search, you could unlock anyone’s data? Would we immediately search the histories of the people closest to us in our lives? Probably not. The first thing we would do is search ourselves. And that’s because human beings are pretty self-centered. … Social scientists call this the spotlight effect. It’s the belief that other people are paying more attention to us than they actually are. We would all be so concerned about the fallout of our secrets that we would focus entirely on ourselves, on our own search histories, before we focused on anyone else’s.

After this initial phase of self-introspection, would the focus inevitably turn to one's neighbors, friends and family? Some would resist the urge, to maintain the illusions that allow us all to simply get along.

When it comes to those we love and care about, we have a positivity bias that sustains us through rough times. If your partner is being rude or aloof at a party, you excuse the behavior as “he’s just tired.” Maybe you catch him flirting with the new hire at work. You tell yourself he’s just being friendly. And it turns out, seeing those you love through rose colored glasses is actually a good thing for relationships (within reason). How many of us are willing to have our world views completely shattered? Not many.

Pollyannish visions are not unanimous among this group.

The most interesting question from this thought experiment is, what would happen to society—would it become less judgy, more accepting of deviant behaviors? Probably not. There are all sorts of behaviors that despite being incredibly common, are still frowned upon (like lying, which occurs in about 1 in every 5 social interactions). Finger pointing and judging would still rule, at least temporarily.

On the other hand, it is possible to envision a positive impact.

Maybe it would provide us with a great opportunity to be more honest with each other. To teach us that the things we are into, the things we hide, aren’t so weird after all.

When we start getting around to looking at others’ data (and others looking at ours), there would be a lot of surprises, for sure, but if such a major event happened to every person, with no person spared, I think it would unite us more than cause relational damage. While people feel alone with their secrets, no person truly is. That’s one of the things we fail to realize when we keep a secret. By keeping a secret, you may also be closing the door on potential help, guidance, and support. Sharing secrets with others is a way to get help with those secrets. A massive universal data leak would be the ultimate revelation and it would also reveal the many secrets we already share and have in common.