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There comes a point in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1994 film Three Colors: Red when the fashion model (that is, the professionally looked-at) Valentine (Irène Jacob) finds herself, after a series of fateful accidents, to be standing in the house of a retired judge and listening to a telephone conversation playing through some sort of stereo repurposed for surveillance. She stares into the glowing dials and hears a kind of argument: evidently, the two men on the phone are clandestine lovers engaged in the kind of humiliating pleading that such lovers have to suffer and inflict when circumstances conspire to keep them apart. When Valentine confronts the judge, he admits without shame that he is eavesdropping on the phone calls of his neighbors, nearly all of them, and that no one but himself, and now Valentine, knows. The judge taunts Valentine to inform the neighbor of his spying. She accepts his challenge, but when she arrives at the spied-upon man’s house and sees his wife and, a moment later, his daughter—who is also listening in on her father’s conversation—she thinks better of it. Valentine chastises the judge for violating the privacy of his neighbors—“It’s disgusting,” she says—but she chooses to keep it a secret to prevent the harm of breaking up the neighbor’s family (or, if the daughter understands and tells what she hears, then to relieve herself of any guilt or blame connected with the dissolution). The film goes on and the eavesdropping eventually comes to light, but I want to stop it here, with this ambiguous moral resolution, in order to ask: Why, before they had been affected by the intrusion, was it a bad thing for the judge to violate the privacy of his neighbors?

A similar question came to mind recently when I heard Glenn Greenwald interviewed about the NSA’s massive program of phone and email surveillance. After Greenwald described the many ways we have been surveilled without cause or warrant, his interlocutor posed what has become a very common question: he asked Greenwald if he had any hard evidence of harms suffered by individuals as a result of this program. Greenwald did his best to respond, but I wanted to blurt: Of course there’s evidence of harm; it’s the evidence of the spying! But my reaction raised the same question as the first act of Kieslowski’s film, namely: Is there harm in being observed if I never find out about it and if my life is never affected in any observable way?

At first this might sound like a tree-falling-in-the-woods type of problem. One could fairly ask: If I never find out about the invasion of my privacy, how can it be said that I was harmed? Such a question is motivated by two important assumptions: one is the assumption that, barring some Truman Show-level conspiracy, it is safe to assume that if I never find out about the violation, then my life was not meaningfully affected by it; the other is that privacy is an instrumental good. According to the instrumental understanding of privacy, I want privacy because I want other things that would be impossible or at least more difficult to achieve without my privacy being respected. In other words, when you violate my privacy by monitoring my internet activity or by listening to my phone calls, you can interfere with my personal ends and projects. Violations of privacy are harmful to me insofar as they stymie my goals, aspirations, etc.

Another way of expressing the instrumental view of the situation in my truncated version of Red is: “No harm, no foul.” And it doesn’t seem that the judge’s neighbors, whom he has been monitoring for some time, have had their lives altered in the slightest by his listening in on their phone calls—the judge lives alone, has told no one about the surveillance and doesn’t even record the conversations. But, like Valentine, we suspect that there is a wrong here and that it consists in the violation of the person’s privacy. So there seems at once to be no harm—at least no instrumental harm—and an evident foul. How to square these conflicting intuitions? When I imagine feeling violated by having my privacy somehow invaded by an unseen snooper—that is, when I put myself in the shoes of one of the judge’s targets—is there a real violation to which my feeling refers, or is it a kind of phantom pain? To put it another way, what kind of harm could there be in simply being known?

Imagine that a bored hacker halfway around the world is monitoring your computer activity for reasons she does not entirely understand. She sees every keystroke, every bad draft and every strange web search, though she never does anything with this information, and your life—your reputation, your personal and career prospects, your psychological well-being, etc.—is not affected in any observable way. Nor do any systemic harms follow, like the kind that have come from some state-sanctioned programs of surveillance. Clearly your privacy has been violated and, therefore, it seems that you have suffered harm. But what might this harm be?

If you discover that you have been betrayed by someone, you are hurt and angry not because the betrayal was brought to your attention, but because you were betrayed. Indeed, even in the case where you never discover that you have been double-crossed, it feels like the betrayer was nevertheless wrong to do what he did and that you, as the one betrayed, have still suffered harm. In just the same way it seems clear that even if you never find out that someone has been monitoring your internet traffic or watching you in the shower, you have still suffered a violation of your privacy. This means that the violation itself is the harm, not the feeling that follows from its discovery. A feeling of violation is surely also a bad thing—it is an unpleasant experience, to say the least—but if the harm of being known consisted entirely in the sense of violation, we would find ourselves trapped in a circle (i.e. you feel violated because you feel violated) and no closer to explaining how it could be bad for you to be observed by your secret hacker, or to understanding what privacy is for. From some general ethical perspective, it seems the hacker has acted wrongly toward you, but this judgment does not account for the fact that what she has done is bad for you. Yet this again invites the question: Bad how, or, bad in what way?

One way of resolving our conflicting intuitions of “foul and no harm” in this case might have something to do with the kind of thing a self is. By “self” I just mean what we generally mean by that word: the expansive answer to the questions “Who am I?” and “Who is Lowry Pressly?” given by me and others respectively. At some level we all know that who we are is not completely up to us; it’s why we keep most of what we think to ourselves, and it’s why we wear one face at work and another within the confines of our homes. The person I think I am is quite different from the person (or persons) the world thinks I am, and the gap between the two matters to me—which significance would be a kind of psychopathology if how others knew us had no effect on who we know ourselves to be.

So, what are the consequences of the social self for the experience of being known? To begin to answer this question, let’s compare the self to a crow skull. The crow skull on my desk has certain intrinsic properties: it is the shade of white that crow skulls of a certain age tend to be, weighs about one-eighth of a pound, is pretty smooth to the touch, etc. It also has certain relational properties: it is my skull, it belonged previously to a living crow, I found it in a certain river and so forth. One day you are passing by my house and you stop to look through my window, you lay eyes on the skull and then you move along. Nothing about the skull, it would seem, has changed by the fact of your seeing it. One’s self, however, is unlike a crow’s skull in at least one very important way. What I call my self is in part constituted by the looks of others; their seeing and recognizing me (as a fellow human, as a writer, as a failure, etc.) matters for who I am. How I appear to the world of others is what gives me my objective existence, and it is through dialogue with and struggle against this objective self that I become who I am. Society not only gives me that objective existence, but also reflects it back to me as my self. Consider, for example, these lines from Yeats’s “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”:

How in the name of Heaven can he escape
That defiling and disfigured shape
The mirror of malicious eyes
Casts upon his eyes until at last
He thinks that shape must be his shape?

This is not a new thought, of course. Philosophers from Hegel to Adam Smith to Charles Taylor have recognized that who I am is not entirely up to me. So too Sartre—“When I am alone, I can not realize my ‘being-seated’; at most it can be said that I simultaneously both am it and am not it. But in order for me to be what I am, it suffices merely that the Other look at me.” So too Yeats, though in the lines quoted above the poet does better than these philosophers at evoking the sheer coercive force that one’s social self can exert on one’s personal conception of who one is. Jeremy Bentham once based a whole architecture of punishment on the tremendous psychological power wielded by the invisible omnipresence of even a possible gaze. One could also recall Adam Smith’s falsely accused man, who will inevitably begin to think of himself in the terms used by his accusers, or why the phrase “if you only knew what everyone really thought of you…” can be so cruel. One of the reasons shame is such a powerful emotion is that we are made to feel that we are in fact, in our secluded subjective selves, the objective self that exists in the unreachable minds of others, defenselessly subject to their appraisals: we are what they make of us and nothing more.

So what does this have to do with the harm in being known? It may be admitted that our selves are constituted in large part by how we are seen and known by others and still objected that the situation in which you are being spied on by one individual affects you in this way not at all. Or all of this may be granted and one could still object that the harm is instrumental if it entails interference with the shaping and control of your public persona. Fair enough—yet these objections still miss the point by a hair. Suppose you have an abiding and yet shameful interest in, say, graffiti art, and accordingly you spend a great deal of time online researching the history of the form, its virtuosos and so forth. And suppose that across the world your solitary hacker is monitoring your every keystroke without your knowledge, and without ever sharing her findings with anyone. In this case, you will live your whole life without having your social self reflect this information that you did not want it to reflect. You can become a crusader against graffiti if you like, and you can be known and remembered as such by your friends, family and countrymen. The harm thus characterized—the one you do not suffer—would be instrumental in the sense that the violation of your privacy interferes with your project of projecting a certain self-image onto the world of others. So then what sort of non-instrumental harm could your self have suffered from this violation of your privacy?

If your internet searches concerning illicit wall painting (or your medical ailments, political affiliations, etc.) are not exposed, then there is always the possibility that you might become a person who does or does not love street art, or who does or does not have chronic pain or genital lesions (or who has never or always loved or had such things). Your self might never be solidified in this way— there might always be some indeterminacy or ambiguity regarding your tastes, health and turn-ons for the world of others, of course, but also for your own self-conception. Once your search history is known, however, it’s no longer possible for you to be one thing or the other, both and neither, if only for this one antipodal hacker. Who you are, in a very real way, has become a little more concrete, and it is this person whom you will now potentially be forced to confront in the alienating mirror of society’s eyes.

If the stranger monitoring your internet traffic sees you as someone interested in graffiti art, then there is no way you can ever be someone who wasn’t interested in graffiti art, if only for this one person. You might actually have a bred-in-the-bone antipathy bordering on hatred for all pictures on walls, but now that the other knows you as an aficionado, either (a) in the case of the knower whose snooping you have become aware of, you are now forced to respond, further exposing yourself, or you can leave it; or (b) you do nothing, as in our case of the unknown knower when there literally is nothing you can do. By looking at you or by monitoring your internet traffic, the unknown knower robs you of some of the possibility that is inherent in your self as a social creature. And it makes about as much sense to say that she robs you of that possibility without your permission as it does to say that I stole your TV without your permission. In other words, it’s not the transgression of the bounds of consent that is at issue here; rather, it is something deeper, something that more directly affects who we are. The multitudes that you contain, to paraphrase Whitman, have decreased in number as a result of your being known.

Being known is a problem for celebrities, of course, and for people whose image is their livelihood; accordingly, U.S. tort law has developed to protect the privacy of those selves that command a premium in the marketplace. But if the harm is not a harm to one’s reputation or a hindrance of one’s ends (even in the project of self-making), but rather consists in the solidifying or reifying of one’s possibilities, then it seems that harm would pertain to your self as the object of a single, unknown knower, as well as to the movie star caught by paparazzi playing bongos in the buff. And if that’s the harm, then the difference between one person and the whole world knowing you in this regard is one of degree and not of kind. It is probably worse for one thousand people to know you as the result of a privacy violation than it is for the single snooper in our example, but that does not mean that the latter case is not bad for you.

Whether this kind of harm disappears when the knower forgets or dies, I am not sure. In a strange way, being known calls to mind the extramission theory of vision, which supposed that being seen consisted in being literally touched by beams emitted from the seer’s eyes. It is hard to imagine that the harms of a solidified self and of stolen possibilities mean much after the knower no longer knows. Perhaps the harm ought not to be looked at from an atemporal standpoint, then, but rather in terms of one’s entire life. It does seem sensible to say that it was bad that you were deprived of some possibility for a time, even if you did eventually get it back (the same way it is still wrong for me to steal your TV even if I give it back after the Super Bowl).

Perhaps ultimately it might not make sense to insist on the strict separation of “being known” from the modifying phrase “without my permission.” Maybe there is, in fact, something essentially permissory about being known. The experiences of willingly exposing ourselves to others through relationships of love, friendship, camaraderie and the like demonstrate to us the value of giving and receiving permission to know and be known. Because of this, when we think about privacy violations, we look first for failures of permission. Indeed, part of what makes the bonds of intimacy so strong is the willing solidification of one’s self before the mirror of another’s eyes. Even so, it still seems there might be something to our other intuition, that there can be harm in simply being known, that even if a gaze cannot literally touch us it can still shape us from afar.

Image credit: Giorgio Barrera, “Finestra #37-2,” from the “Through the Window” series.

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