Volume 3, Issue 3
3rd Quarter, 2008

Concepts of Privacy in a Posthuman Age

Sebastian Sethe, Ph.D.

This article was adapted from a lecture given by Sebastian Sethe during the 3rd Annual Colloquium on the Law of Transbeman Persons, December 10, 2007, at the Florida Space Coast Office of Terasem Movement, Inc.

Sebastian discusses the technological and social factors that are likely to shape the future of privacy law and suggests a jurisprudential method of future-proofing the 'privacy cause' against irrelevance, misuse, and stagnation.

Introduction: Evolving privacy, technology and persons

Whenever someone begins to talk about "the future", one is liable to be met with certain trepidation about "crystal ball gazing". In response, futurists often point to the complex and growing array of methodological tools and techniques designed to give future studies a scientific base.

Yet in any talk about 'futures' there remains, of course, an inevitable element of conjecture, speculation, and projection. This is exacerbated in advanced projects such as the Terasem colloquia where we are not asked to think about the future of a particular product or market or trend, but about the really big challenges: the future of the human form– the future of humanity, as a species, as a biological concept, as a historical narrative, and as an embodied ethical concept.

There are many scenarios for transbeman, transhuman, posthuman developments of personhood; some have been discussed at this very colloquium. I will not attempt here to rehearse or summarise these discussions, I only aim to point out that how we think about privacy issues will also be configured by the type of posthuman entity affected. For example, a whole set of very specific privacy considerations arise when we consider an artificial intelligence whose thoughts and maybe emotions can be analysed, traced, recorded, copied, or amended in computer code. As another example, genetic privacy, almost by definition, may be an obsolete concept in genetically modified animals, including humans. Or consider cybernetically altered beings: Scholars like Kevin Warwick [1] for example, are already experimenting with novel types of sense data. Thus in the future, we will likely be discussing privacy intrusions involving senses and types of information which we haven’t even conceived of yet.

One reason why we are thinking seriously about such and other posthuman entities is that forecasters like Ray Kurzweil [2] suggest that such a paradigm is just around the corner. One important strand of analysis that informs Kurzweil's predictions is the exponential growth of processing power of computing intelligence. People can debate – and have debated with some zest, not least at this colloquium – whether that is precisely the type of intelligence we are looking for in a posthuman entity. Semantically, there is yet another, very different definition of intelligence: the security and military type of 'intelligence' which concerns information about other people's activities. With this 'intelligence' we can certainly observe a couple of converging trends of technological development that all seem to point towards one direction:

Our ability to gather intelligence is aided by the fact that gadgets are getting smaller. There is a steady trend towards miniaturisation. We need not even consider nanotechnologically enabled surveillance; with present technology we are already in a position to introduce miniature radio ID chips into almost any type of consumer good. Moreover, information gathering tools are becoming more ubiquitous and better integrated (e.g. most mobile phones now sport image-recording facilities). It is increasingly easier to network and cross-reference information. Our power to store information has increased dramatically but –contrary to what some would allege– so has our power to analyse it. The control and reach of intelligence gathering devices has increased dramatically and, interestingly, so has the spectrum of information we are able to gather. Whereas we used to be limited to oral or written accounts of what transpired, we can now record information as video, as biochemical data, and even as brain patterns.

In summary:

Given these developments, it does not take a brilliant futurist to conceive of a world or a society – maybe in the very near future – where the notion of secrecy is up for serious redefinition or may become entirely obsolete.

One standard transhumanist approach to threatening technologies is to turn to technology as a solution. As David Friedman [3] puts it "...in the long run, technology —useful technology— is hard to stop. In the long run, the real battle will be the one fought in defense of technologies that protect privacy". At this point, people often point towards encryption technologies as an example of privacy-enhancing technology.

The merits or difficulties with this approach are a separate discussion. At this juncture, we can at least summarise the data. While projections about the future are fraught with difficulty, we can fairly confidently predict two points about future developments in privacy:

1) Technology: One can foresee that our ability to gather and process 'intelligence' in the narrow sense will continue to increase, leading to a situation where informational privacy can only be preserved by active, and technologically sophisticated countermeasures.

2) Agency: If we consider an emergent posthumanity, such beings are likely in a yet uncharted position with respect to privacy. Depending on the scenario, they are more likely to be victims of new types of privacy intrusions, but also more likely to perpetrate new types of privacy infractions.

Part 2: The Social Dimension

For the remainder, and as the main focus of this talk, I would like to concentrate on a third element: the evolution of privacy in a legal and social context.

If we consider the social evolution of privacy, the way the concept of privacy has operated throughout history, we can see that the concept and social role of privacy has changed, and – modulated by other developments in other fields – maybe changed quite a lot.

As first, privacy may be considered a sign of earliest evolutionary advantage: not being disturbed when mating for example. Similarly, being left in private can have negative connotations- linked to social ostracism. In some periods in history, privacy was undoubtedly a status symbol, only afforded or affordable to the privileged. In the middle ages, we imagine privacy as a grave spiritual question – on the one hand the inner disposition of faith, on the other religiosity as shared communal purpose and at their juncture the deeply private exhibitionism of the sacrament of confession. When the middle classes asserted their power, privacy was a check on the overbearing authority of the monarch; in higher social circles of Victorian times privacy seemed the tentative glue to ensure social stability; after the horrors and deprivations of war, privacy was an escape to keep dark memories locked away. 

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1. Kevin Warwiick; I, Cyborg; Century (2002)

2. Ray Kurzweil; The Singularity Is Near; Viking (2005)

3. David D. Friedman; "The Case for Privacy", in: A.I. Cohen & C.H. Wellman (Eds.), Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics, (2005) Blackwell; pg.253-276


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