Phone Hacking and the Future of Privacy

I have been keeping tabs on the Leveson Inquiry in the UK, which continues to deliver the most astonishing insights into contemporary media culture and its effect on the lives of British citizens. Today’s testimony was perhaps the most remarkable yet, although its hard to measure degrees of amazement when almost every witness offers mind-boggling personal stories of appallingly predatory media tactics.

But today was different because the afternoon witness, Paul McMullan, had been the  features editor of the now shuttered News of the World for 7 years, and he willingly – indeed – gleefully confessed to the most lurid, wretched and gross corruption. (How about bribing a cop to tell him that a movie star’s teenage junkie daughter was panhandling outside a subway, hurrying to secretly photograph her then giving her 2 pounds and offering her 50 more to sleep with him, bringing her back to a flat and photographing her topless, than splashing her on the front page the next day calling her a prostitute, which she wasn’t until he made her one. Needless, to say, like so many other victims mentioned in this inquiry, she later killed herself.)

Yet incredibly, as McMullan did so he insisted that his actions were ethical, entirely moral, and cornerstones of a free society. (Although he allowed he regretted the particular story mentioned above, though very few others.) In fact, he explicitly argued that privacy was only for pedophiles, and that society would be far better off if there was no such thing as privacy at all, which would – according to this master media spy – put an end to hypocrisy, double-dealing and deceit. If people don’t keep secrets, he argued, we won’t try to discover them, and they won’t be valuable to tabloids or their readers.

Despite its wretched source, I admit that it’s an interesting argument in light of the increasing disappearance of privacy online. And since I am always looking to compare different technological cultures, I would point to the fact that privacy does not really exist in the oral realm either. Oral cultures are notoriously gossipy environments where everyone knows everyone else’s business. And of course I would argue that this commonality between the lack of privacy in oral cultures (0S1) and digital culture (OS3) is entirely consistent with all of the other similarities between them. Just as it is consistent with the fact that literate culture (OS2) stands in opposition to them, for in literate culture privacy is expected and demanded. And again, the fact that an OS2 social principle (privacy) is being undermined by OS3 tools is another typical phenomenon.

Where is it all heading? Is it possible that – scumbag though he may be – this former phone hacker is right? Will we perhaps find out one way or another whether we want to or not? Will it soon become as silly to think that one could keep the details of one’s life private in the global village as it is in a jungle village?

Here’s a question for you to ponder: if you knew that as an individual or as a business everything you did or wrote via electronic tools (phone or web or even internal systems) would be publicly accessible, would you stop using those tools? In other words, if offered the choice between connecting publicly or disconnecting privately, which would you choose? I think everyone knows what they would choose. But I think many would choose differently. If your choice would be to disconnect privately, then you are likely loyal to OS2 values. If you would willingly embrace public connectivity, then you are probably loyal to OS3 culture.

Personally, I think I might choose private disconnectedness. For I was born in OS2 culture and am only an immigrant to OS3. Yet I also believe that OS2 is a buggy social platform doomed to ecological suicide, which means that as uncomfortable as it might feel to me to relinquish privacy, I would likely be willing to do so in the hope that a more connected world could also become a more sustainable world.

What about you?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑