Magic and tech: privacy

Privacy is a major topic in today’s world. We hear about surveillance, privacy rights, wiretapping, and so much else that it’s hard not to have at least some knowledge of the subject. Whether it’s privacy in the real world, on the Internet, or wherever, it’s really a big deal.

Although we may talk about privacy in strictly modern terms, that doesn’t mean it’s a modern invention. Previous generations had privacy, and they had the attacks on it, the dangers to it, and the need for it. It’s only in recent times that “bad” actors (e.g., foreign—or domestic—government agents) have such a capacity for invading our privacy so effortlessly, so imperceptibly.

Private eyes

The easiest way to keep something private, of course, is to never make it public in the first place. If you’re putting every detail of your life on Facebook, then you really only have yourself to blame when it’s used against you. In general, that applies in any era, with the caveat that what’s considered “public” now might not have been so, say, a century ago. Now, this isn’t to say that not posting something guarantees it’ll never be seen in public (look at, for example, FBI-made spyware or NSA-developed cryptography algorithms), but it’s a good start.

Throughout history, privacy has also been a fight against those who are deliberately trying to invade your personal space. Today, it’s governments and corporations. Years ago, it was governments and neighborhood activist groups (is your neighbor a Communist?). In earlier times, it was governments and rival merchants. All of them would employ spies, informants, private detectives, and the like in their efforts to expose your secrets. And if you were important enough, you were almost obliged to do the same in retaliation.

Those things we need to keep private haven’t really changed, either. We still want to cover up our earlier transgressions, possibly illegal deeds, and all those things we wouldn’t be comfortable having “out there”. Yesterday’s scarlet letter is today’s racist tweet, a reminder of what happens when privacy fails. And the lengths we go to, the things we do to keep such parts of our past out of the public eye, those are becoming more important every day, because our world is getting more connected, but also less forgetful.

Today, we might use a VPN to hide our browsing history. We’ll clear cookies and block tracking scripts. Some people go even farther outside the Internet, avoiding entire city blocks because of surveillance, using burner phones, paying with cash wherever possible, and so on. Those are modern methods of protecting our privacy, but they have their roots in older ways. Hired runners, safe houses, ciphers—it’s all the same, just under a different name.

Magic-eye puzzles

Now, if you add magic, that breaks some of those methods. First off, if you’re in a D&D-style fantasy world, where any hedge wizard has access to the entire Player’s Handbook, you’ve got serious problems. A wizard who can use a scrying spell to see anywhere makes the NSA look like amateur hour. If he can pick up more senses—hearing, specifically—then privacy is essentially dead on arrival. Unless scry-blocking spells and enchantments are available, cheap, and useful, there’s nothing stopping such a setting from becoming the Panopticon.

But let’s take a step back, because the magical realm we’ve been discussing so far isn’t like that. No, it’s a bit more…down to earth. So let’s see what tools it has to protect privacy. While we’re at it, we’ll also take a look at the other side, because that’s always so much easier.

First, there aren’t any invisibility cloaks or disguise spells, unfortunately. However, we do have, thanks to the greater advances in the sciences that magic has created, a lot more options for mundane disguises. Clothing is cheaper, for example, so it’s easier to procure a sizable wardrobe. And travel is not nearly as time-consuming as in pre-modern Earth, meaning that hopping over to the next town to do your dirty work isn’t impossible; you may be suspicious, but not if enough people are moving around.

Privacy in our magical setting, then, is going to be mostly a matter of hiding and deflection, just like it used to be here. It’s not so much a technical problem as a way of thinking about a problem. It faces the same obstacles as in the Industrial era, and the people will most likely develop the same kinds of responses as our ancestors then. To take another example, think back to our magical pseudo-telegraph. These can’t easily be wiretapped—the telegraph (and later telephone) is where the term comes from—because there aren’t any wires. But that doesn’t mean our equivalent to the operator can’t be bought or even replaced. So, if sensitive information has to be sent over the magical lines, it’ll need to be encrypted.

On the flip side, once we’ve established that there are ways of recording or transmitting images and sounds, there’s an obvious kind of surveillance that comes about naturally: the hidden camera. Although they’d be magical in nature, the principle would be the same as in any spy movie. Visiting dignitaries would be wise to bring in their own mages to inspect their lodgings. (Although our actions in real life can’t be encrypted, our communications can, and a good cipher wouldn’t get any easier to crack with magic. Not until computers come around, at least.)

Hiding in plain sight

To remain private in our low-magic setting, therefore, we have to be cautious, but not overly so. The availability of recording devices and other such subterfuge won’t be high; the devices are expensive to create, and they take mages away from other tasks. But that doesn’t mean vigilance isn’t needed. Like in today’s world, how far you need to go to ensure your privacy is directly proportional to the damage your secrets would cause if they got out. If you’re carrying around national secrets, then you’d be stupid not to use the best encryption available. You’d be a fool if you didn’t inspect every room you entered for hidden microphones, magical or mundane.

For most of us, though, it’s a matter of being careful. Don’t give out sensitive information, because you never know who might be listening. Unlike today, our magical kingdom doesn’t have government supercomputers listening to everything we say. It doesn’t have corporations scanning every word we write. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to keep private matters private. There are always people snooping around. Magic won’t make them go away.

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