Joan Smith: What became of mind your own business?

Lamenting the passing of privacy in the Facebook age

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Towards the end of last year, a reporter on a daily newspaper called to ask questions about my private life. I told him I don't talk to journalists about such things, omitting that I'd answered my mobile in the changing room of my gym and was stark naked at the time. It's hard to think of a more apt metaphor for the notion that we're all supposed to go through life stripped bare these days.

Privacy is dead, or at least out of date. So claimed the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, when he argued that the rise of social networking means it's no longer "a social norm". Last week, Zuckerberg had a change of heart, going to court to get a restraining order against a fan who bombarded him with emails and turned up at his house in California.

Zuckerberg's court action follows a series of rows about Facebook. Last year, it was accused of failing in its responsibility to protect users after a serial rapist was convicted of killing a 17-year-old girl he met while posing as a teenage boy on the site. The ease with which personal information can be accessed has shocked some users, who seem not to have realised that it might be visible to parents, employers and even sexual predators.

While this may be a naive but understandable mistake among teenagers, it's hard to comprehend what was going on in the mind of a married Republican congressman, 46-year-old Chris Lee, when he answered a post on the craigslist website. Lee posed as a 39-year-old single man and sent a photograph of himself stripped to the waist to a woman he met through the site. The woman recognised Lee and revealed the exchange. Last week he resigned.

A common theme from these anecdotes is a blurring of boundaries, so that no one seems quite sure any longer what's in the public domain or whether it belongs there. There's ambiguity towards people who complain that their privacy has been breached; this is especially true of public figures, and it offers a partial explanation for the unconscionable delay in setting up a serious police investigation into alleged phone hacking by journalists at the News of the World. Some people take the view that politicians such as Lord Prescott, who was told last week about "significant new evidence" that his voicemails might have been listened to, don't have the same rights as private individuals. There's a tendency to define the limits of privacy in the crudest possible terms as "anything to do with me", raising the question of double standards.

WikiLeaks' revelations include a diplomatic cable accusing a Labour minister in the last government of being "a hound dog" around women; such tittle-tattle is of a different order from exposing behind-the-scenes attitudes of Arab leaders towards Iran, and the fact that the man's name was redacted led to other former ministers being unjustly accused. Hence few moments in recent broadcasting history can compare for hilarity with Julian Assange's assertion during a testy interview with John Humphrys that he's a "gentleman" who doesn't discuss his sexual habits.

WikiLeaks has added to a brutal assumption that every transaction between humans should be open to public scrutiny, even when there's no question of wrongdoing. Technology, celebrity and a culture of distrust have created an unprecedented assault on the concept of privacy.

But if we accept that emails are being read, phone calls hacked into and private information spread across the internet, we are edging closer to the surveillance society which was George Orwell's nightmare in 1984. The difference is that Big Brother's functions have been privatised in 2011, contracted out to hackers, websites, "reality" shows and gossip columns.

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