Given the amount of information that’s available via social media and the immense capabilities of current mass surveillance technology, gaining access to someone else’s life has never been easier, as people’s job history, birth records, and even credit card numbers are increasingly just a Google search away.
And yet, amid all of this transparency, there remains an invisible, but fiercely guarded, ethical boundary between what we want public and what many insist should be kept private.
The Daily Beast recently learned this lesson the hard way. Editor Nico Hines decided to investigate the activity on Grindr, a gay dating app, at the Rio Olympics. Many of the athletes he encountered via Grindr, he noted, came from “notoriously homophobic” countries. Hines did not name any of the athletes, but the article revealed enough details about these people to potentially put them in harm’s way. Amid outrage over the article, The Daily Beast retracted the piece. But the damage had already been done.
The Daily Beast’s Olympic outing is by no means unique. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange recently drew criticism after his organization revealed the names of teenage sexual assault victims. And Gawker had to close its doors after a lengthy, costly legal battle over its posting of a sex tape involving former wrestler Hulk Hogan.
These incidents raise a dilemma: At a time when we have the technological means to discover intimate details about complete strangers, how do we mind the gap between transparency that’s beneficial and the kind that only does harm? There are several competing views on the matter.
Transparency Is Necessary, Even at the Expense of Privacy
In politics, transparency is considered a virtue. According to a recent poll from Quinnipiac, 62% of Republican voters want Donald Trump to make his tax returns public. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, meanwhile, has faced criticism for her perceived lack of transparency, particularly over her response to her email scandal.
Edward Snowden, who in 2012 exposed the massive domestic surveillance program conducted by the NSA, is considered by many a champion of the kind of transparency that holds government accountable to its citizens. Such advocates consider transparency indispensable to the healthy functioning of the political system.
Then there are those who view transparency as a kind of necessary evil. In a 2013 op-ed for The New York Daily News, Seventh Circuit Court Judge and legal theorist Richard Posner argued that the benefits of transparency outweigh the negatives. For Posner, mass surveillance—and the resulting invasion of privacy—is justified in a world that is subject to the constant threat of terrorism.
Approach With Caution
The problem with the “transparency is necessary” approach is that not everyone agrees on what justifies an invasion of privacy. When Ashley Madison—a dating site for people looking to have an affair—was hacked in 2015, revealing the personal information of thousands of its users, it raised a question: Were those would-be cheaters entitled to privacy? Could this information, now available, be used in studies on infidelity, or to expose politicians and other public figures?
In his essay “Against Transparency,” Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig writes that we should question the “goodness” we often associate with transparency. Even in cases where we are treated to plenty of details, we may not have the context necessary to understand what we are looking at. Lessig recalls an anecdote originally told by Peter Lewis in The New York Times. Lewis, a married man, meets a young blond woman in a hotel before taking her out to New York’s East Village. He is caught on camera each step of the way. While observers might have all of the facts in this case—that Lewis was spending the evening with a woman other than his wife—they wouldn’t know from those details that the woman was his daughter.
For this camp, transparency isn’t inherently bad, but it can can come at too steep a cost.
Transparency for the State, Privacy for the Individual
Some have tried to bridge the divide between the transparency hardliners and the privacy advocates, drawing a distinction between the obligations of governments and public corporations to be open and while acknowledging the importance of individual privacy.
According to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, “The greater the power, the more need there is for transparency…. On the other hand, those people who do not have power, we mustn’t reduce their power even more by making them yet more transparent.”
Assange argues that transparency is a powerful political weapon that should be used only against the state, and not too excessively against individuals.
His sentiment is echoed in a Brookings Institute Report entitled “Why Critics of Transparency Are Wrong,” which argues that transparency can “empower people,” lead to a more efficient government, and engender public trust. By creating an open government and more transparent businesses—while still ensuring individual privacy—the argument goes, citizen-consumers will benefit and the organizations will thrive.
Putting up a barrier between the privacy rights of individuals and the expectations that companies and governments remain open may seem like an ideal compromise, but it isn’t as simple as it might appear. What about the private behavior of public figures like politicians or CEOs? Should that be open for public consumption, especially when it is at odds with their public personae?
Perhaps instead of transparency, we should strive to be “translucent,” as two Brigham Young professors have suggested. They argue that while full transparency is generally a good thing, it often fails to serve its intended purpose. Like Lessig, they point to those situations where too much information can get in the way of the truth, and to scenarios in which withholding information—if only for a time—may be the most “ethical” thing to do.
When it comes to transparency, as the BYU professors suggest, it’s all about how it’s applied. When we demand transparency, we’re really asking for an assurance of good behavior built on principles like integrity, fairness, and compassion. So, instead of pursuing transparency for its own sake, perhaps we should pursue what matters most: ethical behavior.