Our obsession with privacy comes at a cost

Posted on 19 Oct 2022

By Denis Moriarty


The Optus leak has sprayed our names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses across the internet.

Some of us have been even more undermined, losing our licence or passport numbers. If we put those numbers aside, though, the data that’s been compromised is pretty much what phone books used to contain. You’d never get away with that system if it was proposed now.

“Every year, a semi-government agency will drive round and place an enormous bundle of data at your door, in several volumes, containing the name, address and telephone number of everyone in the country! We’ll call them ‘telephone directories’. No, ‘phone books’ – that’s snappier. A great framework for advertising! We’ll rake it in.”

“Wouldn’t that allow hackers to steal everyone’s identity?”

“Ah. Hadn’t thought of that. Better forget it, then.”

Denis CIC19
Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty

Back then, though, directories weren’t just household objects, they were widely regarded as the only way you could possibly make a telephone system work. What would be the use of a handset if you didn’t know any other numbers to ring? Network effects relied on widely disseminated identifiers.

They also served a dual purpose for me. My sister Maureen, a fanatical North Melbourne fan, would get my brother and me to raid the public telephone boxes each week, and we’d steal all the phone books and rip them up in pieces for throwing into the air each time North Melbourne kicked a goal at Arden Street. (Even more bizarrely, Telstra would replace them within the week, to be stolen again the following week.)

Every name added to the Melbourne phone book opened up half a million possible new interactions for trade, sociality, or information, an economic powerhouse. The Soviets, who at the time treated the Moscow telephone directory as a state secret, were seen as cutting themselves off from the mechanisms of progress.

And then mobile phones came in, and the conventional wisdom curdled instantly. It seemed that a system could do perfectly well holding everybody’s contact numbers close to their chests, sharing only with their nearest and dearest.

In part, of course, this secrecy is a security measure. I can actually remember the first tentative stirrings of the computer age. The telephone directory was such a universally accepted institution that the government very progressively put it out on 5¼-inch floppy disc – come on, you remember floppy discs, don’t you? – to make it even more useful.

And even then there was a snake in the garden. The disc version was no sooner out than someone used a computer to reverse it, listing all the numbers in order against the names, so you could track the other way and find someone’s name from their number – and put that, too, out on disc. A horrified government quickly made these illegal, but security measures have been falling progressively further behind countersecurity ever since.

But it’s not just security. The death of the phone book wasn’t just a technical matter – it flagged a deep shift in the zeitgeist. Privacy is also a cultural force, a deliberate retreat from public exposure into personal value; nobody knows my secrets unless I decide to tell them. Privacy is individualism holding itself in reserve.

It’s affecting not-for-profit organisations too, which is my corner of the world. Just about any club or society allows its members to see its membership list, and I get a lot of people complaining about this. “How come my privacy is being compromised? “

In such cases the answer is relatively clear. It’s allowed because you signed up for it. You applied for membership and undertook to abide by the constitution, which says that the secretary has to make the member list available. If that wasn’t the case, the current board could control members’ access to information, and no reformers would ever be allowed to reason with members before they had to vote at the AGM.

The same thing applies to the electoral roll, which is available to a long list of people, including political candidates (if I was Optus, I’d establish the Optus Party and get everybody’s data that way).

Democracy, at all levels, requires some compromises on privacy. The ability to reach out to each other is an essential element of collective action. I worry that the general lack of trust will cause younger people to withdraw still further from the public sphere.

Yes, we have to cope with bad actors – again, at every level. And the rise of artificial intelligence is going to make it all much, much more difficult. We need to find a way to protect our core identities. Right now, though, I think we’re setting the fences too far out.

Trying to keep too much information secret is just about as dysfunctional as keeping too little.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping the country's 600,000 not-for-profits.

Our Community’s privacy policy

This commentary was first published in Australian Community Media titles around the country. Look for more Our Community comment in your local edition.

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