The Price of Privacy

Taking a break from the customary All-School Read that has become an annual, summer assignment at Middlesex, the community began this year a bit differently with an “All-School Ethical Topic” – namely, the ethics of privacy in the digital age. On the evening of September 21, Stephen Spielberg’s latest science fiction production, Ready Player One, was screened on campus to prompt consideration of online privacy concerns. The next morning, the School heard from Alexander Heffner, host of the PBS program “The Open Mind,” who offered his thoughts on the subject and welcomed questions from the audience afterward.

Mr. Heffner, who has covered American politics, civic life, and Millennials since the 2008 presidential campaign, is a writer and lecturer whose work has been profiled and published in many major publications and media outlets. Reflecting on the kind of dystopian world represented in books and films like Ready Player One, he commented, “There are threats to privacy, but not as overwhelming as movies depict. Humanity has not vanished.” Though concerned that individual privacy is compromised today, he added, “I would submit that achieving civility in the digital public square is pivotal to what we will be able to preserve of privacy.”

As host of “The Open Mind” since 2014, Mr. Heffner has appreciated being able to explore issues of technology and democracy without having to “adhere to an orthodox view.” Yet, as a native New Yorker who vividly remembers 9/11, he is also sympathetic to law enforcement and the difficulty of protecting individual rights and keeping apprised of threats to national security.

“Preserving civil discourse is key to having an open Web,” Mr. Heffner maintained. Currently jeopardizing online civility is the prevalence of bigotry and obstructionism, to the extent that opposing sides cannot listen to each other, nor can they undertake an honest assessment of facts. This, in turn, will lead to dysfunction, which he called “the last stage of incivility.”

Privacy protection, Mr. Heffner believes, will be driven by one’s economic status and personal resources for security, giving those with “a connection to the boardroom” an advantage. “We have to watch out for that,” he cautioned. “There is a risk that monopolies will not ensure our freedom.”

In closing, he stressed the importance of voting to his audience of Middlesex students – all of whom are considered digital natives and members of Gen Z. “You are the generation that is going to write the law because the law has not yet been written,” he said. Returning to the consequences of 9/11, he asked, “How far are we willing to go in giving up privacy to protect our safety? These are all decisions in your hands, and I urge you to take it seriously.”

With insightful questions for Mr. Heffner regarding free speech and hate speech, open websites and those funded by advertising, as well as the pros and cons of net neutrality, Middlesex students were indeed attuned to the issues at hand. In small groups with their advisors, they continued discussing these topics, dwelling on the tradeoffs between privacy and convenience in the digital age.