Is privacy only for the rich?

At the Enterprise Privacy Group’s first annual conference, back in 2007, participants undertook a fascinating “Postcards from the Future” exercise. The idea is that you imagine yourself a number of years hence, sending a postcard back to yourself now, and describing something about how (in this instance) digital privacy looks with the benefit of some time-travelling hindsight.

One of my suggestions was that in the future, digital privacy – like any constrained and valued resource (clean and abundant water, personal transportation, legroom) – would be something only the wealthy can afford.

If we are to go by Max Mosley’s remarks to the UK Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport committee, in William Gibson’s words, “the future is here”. Among other things, he notes that his legal action against the News of the World ended up costing him some £30,000 – but that it was worth it, despite the fact that he considers the damage to his reputation from their revelations to be irreparable.

A couple of his phrases, at least as quoted in the BBC article, suggest a remarkable ability to dissociate cause and effect from one another. For instance:

“I worked hard over a number of years to build up a certain reputation.”

He added: “You do this because you want to re-establish yourself and your family as proper people and if something like [the newspaper story] happens it destroys the whole thing.”

In philosophical terms, the role of the newspaper story in this is what would be called “an unnecessary and insufficient cause” of Mr Mosley’s subsequent loss of dignity.

It’s “unnecessary” in the sense that it was not the only way in which Mr Mosley’s dignity could have been compromised. For instance, someone could have posted embarrassing videos of the episode on the internet, rather than going to the press with a story.

More to the point, though, it is “insufficient” in the sense that the loss of dignity could not have happened without Mr Mosley having done something – regardless of whether that something was subsequently published by a newspaper or not. And this, surely, is why Mr Mosley’s remarks about “working hard to build up a certain reputation” must sound so bizarre. He is keenly sensitive to the negative connotations of his family name – associated for decades with British Fascism – and clearly understands the importance of his public persona in counteracting them. And yet, without his own clandestine behaviour there would have been nothing to undermine his rebuilding efforts.

I, for one, am grateful to Mr Mosley for having provided such a textbook example of two principles.

First: “shared secret” is an oxymoron.

Second: maintaining different ‘personas’ can contribute to personal privacy – and personal privacy is undermined when the barriers between those ‘personas’ are broken down. That principle is fundamentally a good one, and deserves to be more widely appreciated. What use individuals make of it is another matter.

If I can mention this without being considered indelicate – Max Mosley turns 69 on Friday.