In his new book, Privacy in the New Media Age, top privacy expert Jon L. Mills tries to answer a most difficult question: Can society protect those who are harassed, stalked, and misrepresented online while maintaining our constitutional freedoms?
The media have always thrived on publicizing exciting information. This pursuit for a story often results in intrusions on citizens’ private lives. In today’s new media age, these violations of privacy have become even easier to commit. With access to footage captured with cell phones, posted on social media, or discussed on a blog, anyone can broadcast the most intimate of moments—including ordinary citizens’ horrific deaths.
Named one of Florida’s “Legal Elite” by Florida Trend Magazine, Mills worries that without new regulations, the media will be free to treat our private lives as news—and therefore free to take away our human dignity.
In the interview below, we ask Mills about his reasons for writing this book, and he reveals more information about the state of privacy in the current age.
“We collectively need to fear the loss of dignity and privacy.”
When did you know that you wanted to write this book?
I wanted to write this book since I represented the Earnhardt family. Teresa Earnhardt had just lost her husband in a dramatic and tragic accident that was treated as a global news. Some of the members of the news and mainstream media wanted access to his autopsy photos. The publication of those photos would not serve the public interest but would be a tragedy for their family. Privacy needs to be protected against some part of the press who would have disclosed those images.
I also wanted to write this book because the media has been changing so rapidly since I wrote my last book on privacy in 2008.
Your roles at the University of Florida College of Law must keep you quite busy. How did you fit writing this book into your routine?
Sometimes 5:00 a.m. is a good time to write. And, teaching a class on privacy is a great way to learn and to hear creative ideas from my students.
Is there a particular bill you supported during your ten years in the Florida State Legislature that you would say you are most proud of?
From the perspective of this book, I am glad I co-sponsored the constitutional provision on privacy. It has made a real difference for individual rights in this state.
How do we determine which information is “private” and should be protected from public intrusion?
Privacy is about dignity and liberty. There are some categorical answers like for financial or health information and family issues. I believe that in this new age of vast availability of information, there is hope for individual dignity. There are some signs that the law may be starting to catch on. The U.S. Supreme Court said a police search of a cell phone could be more intrusive than a search of a house.
Opponents of privacy protection laws often argue that by choosing to be in the public spotlight, celebrities and politicians forfeit their rights to privacy. What would your response be to this argument?
To a degree celebrities and politicians do give up certain privacy rights. Our first amendment principles allow a substantial margin for press intrusions particularly if they are about public issues and public figures. However, there are limits. Just because someone is a celebrity or a public official, the status does not give license to a blogger to steal personal information or to viciously slander. There are limits and I propose we draw a line that holds the media accountable for that type of misconduct.
Police use social media platforms like Facebook to help solve crimes, often requesting that social media companies release information to them, such as pictures and posts from suspects’ profiles. Do you think social media sharing that is hidden by user-selected privacy settings should be legally protected?
Some postings on social media are completely public and anyone who posts them should expect that they could be seen by anyone—including law enforcement. The courts have allowed some postings to be obtained by law enforcement or an opposing party in a lawsuit. If you are posting information to a group of people, you are giving up some of your privacy rights. Yes, you can limit access to a select group of friends, but there is no guarantee that they will not republish. Can you disclose information to a defined group and expect that it will not be viewed by others? I am sorry to say that the ultimate answer will depend on the facts in the particular circumstances.
What part of their private lives do you think Americans would be most surprised to find out is not protected from intrusion by law?
There are a lot of surprises for all of us. Someone may be watching your web browsing, your shopping habits, your location, your likes on Facebook, the emails you send, or your financial transactions. We live in glass houses in this new media age. In fact, that is the name of the next book I want to write: “Glass Houses.”
What’s the next best step in pushing for privacy laws?
Increased awareness. They are going to be more intrusions by media and government. People will say enough is enough!
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Hope and fear. I want people to understand that our privacy is at risk from new technology and from intrusive individuals and institutions who sometimes call themselves “the media.” We collectively need to fear the loss of dignity and privacy.
But there is hope. Consciousness is high, thanks to Mr. Snowden. We’re finally having a serious national discussion about striking the appropriate balance between privacy and security.
What’s your next big project?
I am outlining a fiction book about an American family who lives a horror story based on privacy intrusions. And, none of the kinds of intrusions the fictional family will experience are at all fictional.