One day in class, our instructor Brian mentioned a professor of his who claimed that “privacy is a transaction cost.” In other words, the only reason privacy exists in the first place is because it was too much trouble for anyone to bother monitoring everything they would otherwise want to. There’s no innate right to privacy, it’s just that no one could be arsed to deprive you of it. Setting aside my understanding of economics, this was a relatively jarring perspective for me (I’m a lot more accustomed to hearing privacy described as a right) and it gave me pause for thought.
We like to know stuff (Privacy vs Knowledge)
From an individual perspective this idea seems to check out. Neighbors snoop on each other to the extent that it’s convenient and inconspicuous. Classmates and colleagues gossip and share tidbits that are as juicy as they are supposedly secret. Information is currency. Even more so for a business, where knowing one’s customers has always been key to good salesmanship.
In some ways nothing has changed. Historically our private lives were relatively safe because no one could be arsed to watch anyone all the time. It’s easy to hide when no one is going to bother seeking. Now the ease of gathering information has swung to the other extreme, and we have an overabundance of data that is cheap to accumulate and store, and the difficulty is determining what’s worth sifting through. Now individuals are hidden amidst the sea of noise.
In other ways we are much more exposed. While no one is likely to randomly find our info, or care if they happen across it, it is much easier for those with an interest in our personal information to get their hands on it. [Casual stalking] is trivial through Google or Facebook, and [for a pittance] you can obtain a frightening array of someone’s personal details. In this sense, privacy seems less like a right and more like an ongoing struggle. I cannot hide myself from the world, but it’s generally not worth the world’s trouble to snoop on everything about me.
I have a right to my identity…right? (Privacy vs Security)
Obscurity is a bad security policy. In the U.S., knowledge of our Social Security Number unlocks enough information about us to be legally impersonated. Our SSN is supposed to be secret, yet we must provide it to a great many people, where it sits in file cabinets and is easily discovered. The problem with taking solace in obscurity is that people can find you anyway, and then what? If only we had a personal ID number that didn’t allow anyone who knew it to impersonate us.
I’m not ashamed of my behavior (Privacy vs Secrecy)
Cory Doctorow makes the excellent point that privacy is about control, not secrecy. It’s not a secret that I am naked when I shower, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy for anyone to watch. We participate in many activities in our lives, the knowledge of which is public but the staring-through-the-window-at is not okay. Privacy is about my having control over who sees me naked.
But it’s so useful (Privacy vs Convenience)
Socially, at least, we have established boundaries about what information we should have control over and what is okay for others to butt in on. Yet online these boundaries are quite vague. Many people are surprised when their online activity is exposed, just as others warn that we should assume anything we put on the internet is public. Even offline, we give up information about our behavior in exchange for shopping discounts.
So why do we do it? Well, it’s convenient. Giving Amazon our buying history lets us only fill out that tedious credit card information once, plus it gets us recommendations. On Facebook it allows us to know more about and share more with our friends. And what does it matter if anyone’s watching?
Kids will be kids (Privacy vs Norms)
Perhaps we can make a child-school analogy to our individual-government questions. We all have memories of our behavior as kids which we shrink from. These are things that most of us are aware is normal and pretty unavoidable behavior for kids, while simultaneously it is behavior we would try to prevent if we saw it happening. Teenagers do all sorts of things that their parents either
(a) want to find out so they can do something about it,
(b) are vaguely aware it’s happening but don’t want to know about it, or
(c) know exactly what their kids are doing and are fine with it.
In a world where much teen activity has shifted online, the first category has resulted in a spate of schools disciplining students for things that didn’t take place at school. The second is the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy of parenting. The “if you don’t ask I don’t have to say no” mentality, where once it’s public, authority figures are required to respond to it, but until then they’re content to tacitly allow it to continue. The third kind happens when kids trust their parents, and parents understand that kids will make their own mistakes and just want to be in the loop.
What is the solution here? For kids to get better at hiding their behavior again? Are we content to discourage trust between kids and their parents and teachers? We certainly seem content to distrust our employers and government.
Impasse (Privacy vs Practicality)
Like it or not, as our personal information becomes easier for companies to gather and more valuable to mine, and as long as it is more convenient for us to provide our information, maintaining our privacy does not look any easier. Will new regulations and market forces work to protent individual privacy rights? Who knows, maybe they will. My guess is that our conception of what is private and our norms of what is acceptable will shift to accomodate the growing reality of endlessly persistent and mineable personal data. Instead of embarrassment at pictures of college drinking, upcoming generations may express suspicion of a public official has no evidence of growing up like a normal person. Instead of disciplining children for being children online, perhaps schools will utilize such opportunities as teachable moments.