by Barry Chudakov on September 15th, 2010

Secret Life

Bees have a secret life. As do numbers. Trees apparently have one, American teenagers always have had one. Secrets are immensely important to us, both in their keeping and in their discovery. We might even say, riffing Socratically, the unsecreted life is not worth living. But what happens to our secret life in the era of publicy and Public Parts? Hive mind and tribal display turn our privacy garments inside out: we wear our inner lining to the outer world. Our secret life is going public with more frequency, more intensity, more reality than ever before; at the same time it is also a target, a tracking and marketing tool for someone we likely do not know or know about. Our secret life is becoming a Metalife.



Dan 3.0. All rights reserved.

Dan Brown, a 20-year-old video blogger from Lincoln, Nebraska, is engaged in a year-long project where rather than telling all of his friends and followers on his Pogobat channel what he is going to do, he will ask them what he should do. “What would happen if a video blogger decided to put complete control of his life in the hands of his viewers?” he asked the VidCon audience. “I have no freaking idea, but we’re going to find out. Starting on Aug. 2, for one year, I am very literally putting complete control of my life in your hands.” Dan, like many of his peers is ‘outering.’ Mark Federman, Chief Strategist, The McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto explains:

“… it is, as McLuhan quotes James Joyce, the “outering” of private minds … that manifests publicy of the mind. The reversal of privacy to publicy, that which was – and in many respect remains – intimate, being revealed to all who would care to look, while simultaneously remaining under our control, is an observable effect.”


PostSecret postcard. All rights reserved.


PostSecret is described as “an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard.” These are not made up and it’s easy to see and feel the pain beneath many comments. In other words, there is something about these messages that entails a kind of bursting intent to share, to let someone, almost anyone, know the secret.

Gail Saltz, M.D. reiterates in Anatomy of a Secret Life:

“We all have secrets: we live and breathe them every day. We may not know what one another’s secrets are, but we know they’re there. They’re always there…. Humankind’s basic needs are food, water, and shelter, but secrets aren’t too far down the list of essentials.”


Source: PostSecret, all rights reserved.


Yet something has happened to change this essential. It is no longer enough to know that others have secrets. We now have the means to dig them up, drag them to the surface, expose them to millions. And we do so. As the character Lisbeth Salander says In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, “People always have secrets. It’s just a matter of finding out what they are.”

The curious thing about ‘outering’ is that plenty of folks today aren’t waiting for others to find their secrets. They want to be the first to expose themselves. Yet this is the very opposite of what secret means and has always meant:

kept from knowledge or view; marked by the habit of discretion; remote from human frequentation or notice; designed to elude observation or detection.

This contradiction, a seeming paradox, is central to understanding Metalife. While outering may be a new theater of the absurd, a deliberate provocation to wake us from the slumbers of media immersion, it is also a form of media-mirroring, a kind of subconscious reaction to everyware, and always-on gadgets and connectivity. In effect, just as we have done with alphabets and the texts that have ruled our lives for centuries, outering is yet another example of entraining with our tools—adapting our thinking and behaviors to the logic and dynamics of these tools we use every day.

And this is where things start to get dicey.


Meta data Creates a Metalife

Deliberately exposing our own secrets is one piece of the identity puzzle. But others who are unknown to us are also engaging in this mirroring and entraining—and seeking to monitor and manipulate our secrets. The Fourth Amendment protects against searches that violate our reasonable expectations of privacy. But what if we have no expectations because we are unaware of the monitoring capabilities in the technologies that surround us? For example, when you submit your personal profile to a website. The Electronic Frontier Foundation explains:

… you will often have no Fourth Amendment protection in the records that others keep about you, because most information that a third party will have about you was either given freely to them by you, thus knowingly exposed, or was collected from other, public sources. It doesn’t necessarily matter if you thought you were handing over the information in confidence, or if you thought the information was only going to be used for a particular purpose.


Iris scan, Flickr, jj99smith, all rights reserved.


Consider another common example: traveling through an airport. Honeywell has now built a Combined Face and Iris Recognition System (CFAIRS), which extends the range of conventional eye (iris) scans to 16 feet. CFAIRS shoots a high-resolution video image of the iris, then cross-references it with biometric data bases. At an airport, the 2.5-foot-tall machine pans and tilts 120 degrees to survey travelers going through customs. CFAIRS can look through masks and glasses, scans at off-angles and captures people who are moving. As one technologist remarked,” “You can be walking down a corridor and not even know [the iris scanning is] being done.”

Today there are new and emerging markets for secrets. In effect, the meta data that create your Metalife is up for grabs. Known as ‘inadvertent information sharing’, your secret life is both the voyeur’s goldmine and a fledgling market with dynamics as interesting to data trackers as the emerging markets of Egypt or South Africa are to investors.


Google privacy infograhic: your privacy on the internet.

Infographic byWordStream Internet Marketing


Geotagging is the process of adding geographical information to media files like photos and videos. It is a feature commonly turned on by default in many smartphones, including Apple’s iPhone. For various reasons most people don’t realize that automatic geotagging takes place on their smart phones. As a result, individuals often share too much information about their location, even their exact latitude and longitude, when taking photos with a smartpphone and posting them online.


Source:, all rights reserved.

Developers Ben Jackson, Larry Pesce and an independent security research team called Mayhemic Labs, created a website called I Can Stalk U. The site parses the public stream of Twitter updates for photos posted by Twitter users and then, in near real time, re-posts them on the site’s homepage, edited to reveal location.

By posting this information, you allow your movements to be recorded and analyized by anyone from a government to a nosy neighbor. Jackson and Pesce say that after analyzing your photos, someone could find out:

– Where you live
– Who else lives there
– Your commuting patterns
- Where you go for lunch each day
– Who you go to lunch with
– Why you and your attactive co-worker really like to visit a certain nice restaurant on a regular basis

In effect, anyone who accesses your digital photos could suss out where you were when you took the snapshot, opening the door for you to be “digitally stalked.” Given social sharing services like Twitter and Facebook, that digital stalking can now occur in real time. This brings the ‘outering’ dilemma into sharp focus.



Dana Priest and William M. Arkin of the Washington Post (along with more than two dozen WP journalists) outline further how the war on terrorism has expanded this search into our private and secret lives in their outstanding series, Top Secret America:

– Every day across the United States, 854,000 civil servants, military personnel and private contractors with top-secret security clearances are scanned into offices protected by electromagnetic locks, retinal cameras and fortified walls that eavesdropping equipment cannot penetrate.

– Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases.

– Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

– An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

– In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.



One of the consequences of ‘outering’ is the creation of an opposite desire for retreat. When a secret life becomes a Metalife, when we port our identity to a website where secrets are posted, this does more than create another version of us; it changes how we think. In other words, just revealing your secrets, giving them a tangible, outer life of their own—a Metalife—changes those secrets and changes you.


Source:, all rights reserved.


The lens, combined with exponentially advancing ‘smart’ tools, has enhanced our ability to look at and into our behaviors—and this has enabled the ‘outering’ Metalife. These tools have created a mobius strip of our lives, twisting the underside to the outside. But, as I have written elsewhere, Metalife is best understood in terms of contradiction and paradox. As various technologies enable us to expose and share our secrets, those same tools are appropriated by military, commercial and political entities to shield their own and monitor others’ secrets.

It is as though we’re in a public scrum for our private lives.

As Google moves into the world of highly targeted advertising, it is considering (some have characterized it as ‘agonizing over’) what to do with all the data it collects on Google users, data that is potentially available to any party wielding a subpoena. (A recent Wall Street Journal examination of the proliferation of online tracking found that Google’s tracking code appeared on 45 of the 50 most popular U.S. websites.)

While our lives show up and are monitored endlessly in various ways by ever-evolving apps and technologies, we are rapidly coming to recognize an equal and opposite need for ‘innering’: our secret lives are, in fact, a refuge, a resource like air or water that needs attention and may be compromised. So, do we entrain with our tools that incline and invite us, or stand back and consider our options?


Secret detail 3, Flickr, casajordi, all rights reserved.


We often forget that privacy is a right and a privilege that others in history, from slaves to many women in various cultures, have not always known. I believe we will soon recognize the importance of our secret lives and seek to protect them, while at the same time we may be willing and unwilling participants in outering, showing ourselves in various ways to the world.

Leonard Cohen in his haunting and evocative song, “In my secret life” shows the contradictions at the core of our secrets:

I smile when I’m angry.
I cheat and I lie.
I do what I have to do
To get by.
But I know what is wrong,
And I know what is right.
And I’d die for the truth
In My Secret Life.

We would be wise to ponder his final words:

And the dealer wants you thinking
That it’s either black or white.
Thank God it’s not that simple
In My Secret Life




Further information

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Electronic privacy information center

Good or Evil: Have We Shared Too Much with Facebook, Google and Apple?

Google Agonizes on Privacy as Ad World Vaults Ahead

Keep Your Secrets

News that can impact your privacy

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

Privacy, the source for news, information, and action

Public Parts Jeff Jarvis

Publicy Mark Federman (see especially Federman’s comments on ‘publicy’, p. 8.)

RWW: Zuckerberg Says Privacy Is Over

The Decade of Publicy Stowe Boyd

Top Secret America


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From Commentary

1 Comment
  1. cartagena jack permalink

    this is one of the most interesting things i’ve read – maybe ever. and it heightens my paranoia and further leads me to want to drop out, disappear, deal in cash only and ditch technology.

    let’s get the message of mr. chudakov’s blog out there to warn people.

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