Orwell vs. Kafka: Against nothing-to-hide

In debates about the need to protect privacy, the most common response from people is, “Well, I have nothing to hide.”

Daniel J. Solove in The Chronicle of Higher Education unpacks this reply and provides nuanced arguments about why the usual back-and-forth on privacy is missing a key point.

Solove argues that usually, when people describe the abuses of personal data, they refer to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The novel describes a harrowing totalitarian government that watches its citizens obsessively and demands strict discipline. Yet when faced with a Big Brother situation, many citizens may not be troubled by severe government monitoring. Especially if that information is seen as trivial, such as the hotels they stay at, the books they own, or the kind of beverages they drink.

Instead of Orwell, Solove recommends the metaphor from Franz Kafka’s The Trial:

Kafka’s novel centers around a man who is arrested but not informed why. He desperately tries to find out what triggered his arrest and what’s in store for him. He finds out that a mysterious court system has a dossier on him and is investigating him, but he’s unable to learn much more. The Trial depicts a bureaucracy with inscrutable purposes that uses people’s information to make important decisions about them, yet denies the people the ability to participate in how their information is used.

The Solove concludes that the real concern is not necessarily the collection of data, but the processing of it.

Legal and policy solutions focus too much on the problems under the Orwellian metaphor—those of surveillance—and aren’t adequately addressing the Kafkaesque problems—those of information processing. The difficulty is that commentators are trying to conceive of the problems caused by databases in terms of surveillance when, in fact, those problems are different.

The individual, living in our contemporary all-too-real Trial, is frustrated by a system in which they feel helpless and powerless. It’s not about inhibiting behavior through monitoring, but rather the denial of participation in data processing.

Privacy is often threatened not by a single egregious act but by the slow accretion of a series of relatively minor acts.

It’s a great read.

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