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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

On Privacy, Vulnerability & Linguistic Creativity

Codes of our own invention

Codes of our own invention

Codes of Our Own Invention

Irina Raicu

I am preparing to talk to a group of SCU students about privacy online and the relationship between privacy and ethics. As I do, I’m considering my audience.

I grew up in Romania, at a time when the Communist government was using mass surveillance against its citizens. Like others who lived in such circumstances, I remember the self-censored writing and speech, the veiled references, the fear that something will be heard and misunderstood.

People who lived under regimes like Romania’s in those days have no doubt that privacy is a key part of living “the good life” that ethical practices are supposed to produce.

But I have learned that, when I talk to people who have grown up in the U.S., I first need to make the case for privacy. “Why should we care?” people sometimes ask. Some say that they’re OK with the government reading their email; others say the same about corporate data-collection. “Is it OK for your employer to read your email and listen to your calls?” I might then ask. “For your neighbor? Your spouse? Your kids? Your parents?”

Eventually we’ll reach some folks from whom the questioner does want to protect his or her private communications or other private details (like what websites he or she has visited, or what search terms he or she has typed into online search engines). Only then can we start to talk about the why. Why don’t we just reveal everything about ourselves to everyone? Could we actually do that, even if we wanted to? Is anyone really an open book? And what does that mean? What might happen if a stranger were to read a particular page at which a particular book was open, without reading all the rest?

I will talk to the students about “layers” of privacy; about the role that privacy plays in autonomy, creativity, and intimacy. About its role in democratic governance. About its role in the balancing of power between entities. “If information is power,” I wrote sometime back, “privacy is a defensive shell against that power.  It is an effort to modulate vulnerability.  (The more vulnerable you feel, the more likely you are to understand the value of privacy.) “

So really, when I talk to people who have not experienced life under antagonistic surveillance, I should start by asking them to think of a person or group of people or entity vis-à-vis which they feel vulnerable—and only then ask them whether they would be OK with that particular person, group, or entity having access to all of their communications and to personal details about them. I wouldn’t have to go, then, first through a discussion of all the people or groups that don’t worry them.

There’s a funny counterpart to this conversation. If I’m speaking to Romanians who grew up under Communism, and I start to explain the importance of privacy, they look at me like I’m crazy. “Of course it’s important,” their expression says—“move on!” It’s as if I’d started to explain that breathing is good for you.

Sometimes, a clarification of the term is necessary. A woman who had immigrated from Russia once came up to me to tell me that in Russia they’d had no privacy. I pushed back against that. “When you left your home, did your mother always know where you were going?” No, she said. “Did you tell your teachers everything that you told your friends?” No, she had not. So she had had some privacy—not in her communications, maybe, not from the government, but still.

And what about the government? A few years ago, the Boston Globe published an article about the “coded” language that Syrians and Chinese used in response to surveillance; the article’s subtitle was “How People Communicate when the Government Is Watching.”  Beyond encryption or invisible ink, people have always used language as a code—not the “Enigma” kind of code, but a lightweight, flexible set of conventions, which change the meaning of words and sentences to something else that only some understand. As the Globe’s Joshua Friedman notes, communicating within mass surveillance requires some “linguistic creativity.” “Like dissidents, rebels, and spies in many times and places,” writes Friedman,

Syrians use codes of their own invention to mask the political so that it sounds unthreateningly personal. In China, too, where government keeps a close watch on antigovernment speech, codes are common, most notably online. The creative ways that speakers of Arabic and Chinese have found to say the unsayable are a testament to how flexibly we are able to use language to express our thoughts, no matter how carefully it’s restricted.

Of course, devising and disseminating such “codes of their own invention” is not a fail-safe protective measure, and it does not return us to the bounty of unfettered free speech. Moreover, it still requires a measure of privacy—a place and a way for people to agree about the new meaning of old words and expressions. Also required are the appropriate, cautious frame of mind; enough information to be able to avoid the tools and circumstances that would break the codes; and the recognition that privacy protection is a shared enterprise (we can’t protect our privacy on our own; those who communicate with us must do it, too, for their sake as well as ours).

Do the students I’m about to talk to have codes of their own, designed to circumvent parental control tools or to communicate below the radar of educational institutions? I wouldn’t be surprised. In a time of new surveillance tools, and of so many people (some well-intentioned, some not) trying to breach our privacy protections, all of us have much to learn, or re-learn.

Photo by Jack Moreh, copyright Free Range Stock,

Jan 8, 2016

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