Though the explosion of social media and messaging apps has made our lives very public, this is not the first time that society has had to grapple with the issue of privacy. As the writer Gabriel García Márquez famously said. “All human beings have three lives: public, private and secret.”

The boundaries between these spheres and our understanding of these lines vary with time, the nature of the society to which we belong and, often, the class of society from which we are drawn. Ironically, even though we often claim to value our privacy, our actions make it clear that we don’t.

That is obvious from our continuous sharing of personal information on social media interactions, our use of apps that disclose our every footstep to the world, and our searches through the search engines that articulate our desires and our fears.

Does the concept of privacy need to be redefined in the era of the internet and social media?

Recalling Orwell

Whenever the question of privacy is discussed, British writer George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four inevitably makes an appearance. Describing the control mechanisms of an authoritarian government, it is probably the definitive novel of the 20th century.

In the novel, Orwell coined terms such as “Big Brother”, “doublethink” and “newspeak” that have become part of the culture – as has the word “Orwellian”, which describes “a situation, idea, or societal condition that the writer identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society”. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a work of political prophecy that continues to haunt the contemporary world.

Surveillance is a key thread of the storyline. Set in a country called Oceania, houses and apartments, workstations and public places are equipped with telescreens that allow people to be monitored at all times. Orwell almost seemed to predict the ubiquitous nature of the internet-driven world, which has dismantled the carefully nurtured age-old concept of privacy.

This is a situation that tech gurus encourage us to accept as the new normal. “You have zero privacy anyway,” Sun Microsystems chief executive Scott McNealy famously declared in 1999. In 2010, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg announced: “Privacy is dead.” We have few options to resist.

Orwell could not think about today’s ubiquitous nature of the internet-driven world, which could dismantle the carefully nurtured age-old concept of privacy. Photo credit: Anindito Mukherjee/ Reuters

While it is often difficult to understand what privacy is, it might be easier to understand what happens in the absence of privacy. Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll’s powerful novel The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, or: how violence develops and where it can lead, written in 1974, is about an innocent housekeeper, Katharina, terrorised by the media.

Her life is ruined by an invasive tabloid reporter and a police investigation when the man with whom she has just fallen in love turns out to be wanted in connection with a bank robbery. The journalist tried desperately to grab the headlines by portraying Katharina as an evil woman.

As the attacks on her intensify, Katharina finds herself completely confined. Simultaneously, the reader also wanders around to understand the meaning of lack of privacy in a clear vivid way.

A reality show

Two decades after this novel, the Hollywood movie The Truman Show went over the same ground in 1998. Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, the unsuspecting star of a reality television programme broadcast live around the clock worldwide for 30 long years. Truman does not know that his life has been a TV show since the day he was born.

The seaside town of Seahaven Island in which he spends his life is a complete fabrication – a massive set surrounded by a protective dome. It is equipped with state-of-the-art technology to simulate day and night and weather conditions. About 5,000 cameras record Truman’s every move.

All Seahaven’s other residents, including his friends, his wife and his mother, are actors. In fact, everybody except Truman knows about the reality show. It’s something he begins to get hints of very late. As he starts to comprehend the absence of privacy in his life, he erupts in rebellion.

The film leaves the viewer wondering whether the sense of privacy is inherent to human nature, or whether it is just an artificial concept. Despite this film depiction, however, the value of privacy is a widely appreciated issue in American society. As far back as 1890, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis published an essay in the Harvard Law Review titled “The Right to Privacy”.

This was articulated primarily as a “right to be let alone”. Brandeis remained a stalwart champion of the right to privacy during his tenure as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court between 1916 and 1939. In his famous dissent in the Olmstead vs the United States case in 1928, Brandeis defined the “right to be let alone” as “the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilised men”.

Two sides of a coin

Do we sometimes confuse “privacy” with “security”? Are they the same, or, are they just the two sides of a coin? There may be a shadowy overlap, but they are certainly not the same. When we discuss privacy, are we often more concerned about the security of our bank accounts and credit cards?

To many people, “security” is about the safeguarding of data, whereas “privacy” is about safeguarding the user’s identity. But, what about the right to be left alone?

Increasingly, we grapple with complicated questions about how much national authorities should know about its citizens to plan for development and security, and about the red line beyond which they must not venture. The answers are complicated and vary from country to country. Courts and legislators must spend substantial time trying to draw this line for their citizens in any country. It’s clear that a template will be laid down in course of time, and people will get accustomed to it.

The rest will be confined in the nebulous, difficult-to-understand concept of privacy.

Atanu Biswas is a Professor of statistics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.