Having Grown Up in the Age of Airport Scanners and Facebook Statuses, What Does Privacy Actually Mean?

At some point during the NSA scandal it occurred to me that my biggest reaction wasn’t outrage (though there was some of that), and definitely not surprise (there was none of that), but rather a weary sort of "Oh boy, I guess we’ll have to care about this now."

Privacy means something very different to the post-9/11, age-of-the-Internet generation. People my age grew up with the Patriot Act as the law of the land. We grew up with Facebook, which The Onion points out could have been the best CIA program in history, had Mark Zuckerberg been a CIA agent. Information that years ago would have been “none of your business” — our political affiliations, our friends, our personal photos, our very locations — is now all online.

Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I even heard someone my age say “none of your business” or something similar. That probably says something all on its own.

Still, I’d always considered myself a pretty big hardliner on civil liberties. I was raised by two ACLU members and a father who generally taught me that the government will try to get away with whatever it can. But where was the outrage my parents felt?

The fact is that when you have a device in your pocket that makes you reachable at any hour of the day or night, not to mention enables your emails to follow you around wherever you go, the idea of privacy changes.

I’m not saying it goes away altogether. Actually quite the opposite. I do think that my generation values its privacy. We just have a different idea of where privacy exists.

Sure, I’ll book plane tickets over the Internet, exchange intimate emails with friends, talk about my personal life on Facebook; but I also know that there’s a chance someone will steal my credit card, hack my email, or find a way around my Facebook privacy settings. There's a sense that anything done online isn't really private. Between cop shows, horror stories of Internet stalkers, warnings against identity theft, or just general cultural osmosis, everyone my age knows that what you put online can be used against you. We recognize that these ways in which we choose to present ourselves to the world create a risk every time we log on (if we ever actually log off, that is). Of course, I would like those things to stay private; but I’m not foolish enough to think there’s any absolute guarantee of that.

On some level, this blasé attitude about privacy among young people is a defense mechanism. We know we're exposed, so in order to live a world that requires technology, you have to find a way to not worry about it. The easiest psychological defense is to downplay its importance.

I used to take my phone battery out every now and then, for no real reason, because I knew that even if your phone is off it can be traced so long as the battery is still inside. I’m not paranoid, but I liked knowing that. Now I have an iPhone with no way to remove the battery. I shrug and figure it’s more important to be able to look up directions.

I still value privacy, and I think most people of my generation do. I do care whether or not my emails and phone calls are private, but not for abstract, ideological reasons. After all, if it doesn’t have an impact on the practical matters of my life, I might know intellectually that it’s an invasion of my privacy, but it doesn’t feel that way. After all, the NSA could also figure out a decent number of things about me just by following me on Twitter.

And I believe that privacy, true privacy, means something different. Privacy exists when you are alone, or spending time face-to-face with the people in your life. It’s personal, whereas life online is always just a little bit public, whether you envision the government listening in on your phone calls, someone hacking your Facebook, or just a friend’s roommate borrowing her computer and seeing an email you wrote.

Ultimately, I don’t think that our new attitudes on privacy are a bad thing, either. Look around. Are people more unhappy now than they were 20 years ago? Society is different today, and it naturally creates different priorities. The world spins on. There are a lot of things I care about a great deal, like global warming and the potential annihilation of all life on the planet. Privacy just isn’t that high up on my list, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.