Privacy and the Extended Mind

Our thoughts inhabit the most private of spaces. The brain activity an individual perceives as mind is completely inaccessible to any one else. Others know our thoughts only through what we say. There is an absolute ownership of mind based on the metaphysics of the activity, one no police or court can access.

I paused when I read this suggestion that smartphones could share the privileged privacy of mind:

I wonder if every future iPhone product announcement comes wrapped in a message about the importance of smartphones as “an extension of ourselves,” as Cook said today. If you read between the lines, that sure sounds like an argument that smartphones should be a warrant-proof space like the one between our ears. Tea and scones in Cupertino: The “Loop You In” Apple event – Six Colors

Is it possible that the theory of extended cognition of Andy Clark and others is reaching a wider audience and affected how we think about our personal devices? Clark and others suggest that the physical basis of mind should include parts of the world outside the brain used for thinking or to aid memory. It may follow that if mind is embodied both in the brain and in the physical artifacts that we use to aid thinking, then of course the smartphone could held to be as private as the brain itself.

Speech and writing are not privileged in the same way as thought because once words are put out into the world, others can perceive and interpret the symbols for themselves. But a private language or a coded communication is completely privileged. Of course, a government could ask for those artifacts to be decoded or interpreted, but that’s no different from them asking the brain what it’s thinking. One can simply refuse to answer, refuse to decode, refuse to provide the password. Can the government break into the mind without permission?

Just as thought is encrypted in the brain through its physical medium of neurons and synapses, so are symbols deeply hidden in an encrypted phone. As I contemplate the mind, arising from the interaction of brain with the world, I see the logic in extending the private nature of mind to the personal devices used for extended cognition.

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