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The Erosion of Privacy: Why Don't We Care?

posted by:Jacquelyn Burkell // 11:32 PM // April 19, 2005 // ID TRAIL MIX

There’s no doubt our privacy – and our anonymity – are every day being eroded. Instances are myriad in number, and only increasing. While preferred customer accounts, email monitoring, and web browser cookies are present everywhere, what is on the horizon should perhaps be of even more concern: RFIDs in our rental cars, biometrically coded passports, and implanted ID tags. And, of course, the technologically possible future presents even more extreme examples, including ‘computers that can read our brain waves’ (available instances include some monkeys and one man rendered quadriplegic in an accident: he reports that while the technology works in principle, he isn’t planning to incorporate it into his life any day soon, since the effort it takes is immense and the rewards relatively few).

So, why don’t people care? Why aren’t we, as a culture, rising up in protest against those who would constantly collect, refine, transmit, integrate, and ultimately use our personal information?

We’re too afraid: not of Big Brother, but of each other. When the twin towers fell, they raised a tsunami of interpersonal paranoia. We’re afraid of flying, of eating genetically modified foods, and of identity theft. More to the point, we’re afraid of malignant others: pedophiles who would snatch our children, terrorists who would hijack our planes, and criminals who would steal our names and reputations. And the answer to this fear? Information! Theirs, of course, not ours: those malign actors (and even those who might potentially be malignant) must be tracked, known, numbered, followed. In Canada, we’re about to release Karla Homolka, a notorious serial killer, from prison. According to a recent article in the Globe and Mail (Tuesday April 12, Timothy Appleby), Homolka will be kept “on a short leash and in plain view”, an arrangement that is “without precedent in Canada”. We are collectively convinced that this arrangement will make us safer (a poor bet at best), and collectively indifferent to any threat this approach might ultimately pose to our own privacy.
We may not be smart enough to recognize that compromising the privacy of criminals and pedophiles privacy necessarily compromises our own. But that, I think, is a naïve view. Instead, it is more likely that the tradeoff is worth it – that we have ‘nothing to hide’ (a familiar chorus), and so should not fear surveillance. In balance, the gain (of perceived safety) outweighs the loss (of privacy and anonymity).

We gain by our own loss

As decision makers, we are more comfortable with the short time horizon – rewards and punishments that are close at hand have far more bearing on our decisions than outcomes that will come to pass some time in the future. It isn’t even that we see these distant results as uncertain – just somehow vague, less pressing, in the way that distant objects on a sunny day become hazy and indistinct. In the realm of personal decision making with respect to data protection, the immediate results are positive: we gain money (in the form of preferred customer discounts), information (as in personalized recommendations for books we might like), and a measure of prestige (if only illusory: being addressed by name as you pay for your purchases has to make you feel more important!).

Most of us are not unaware of the potential, or perhaps certain but delayed, cost. Sure, the proportion of spam in my email goes up – but I just institute better filters to get rid of it. Sure, I receive more and more offers for unwanted credit cards in my ‘snail mail’, each offer targeted with respect to my personal spending habits and income – but I can just throw them away. The incremental benefits I gain far outweigh what seem to be minor inconveniences – and I’m simply unaware of the big looming cost to privacy that is on the horizon.

We’ve got nothing to hide

That brings us to the chorus of the indifferent: We have nothing to hide. It seems that we’ve constructed data privacy as something that protects the ‘bad guys’, while offering nothing to those whose lives are ‘open books’. And even those cases (identity theft comes to mind) where the ordinary citizen is seriously threatened by the loss of control of their own personal information, privacy isn’t seen as the answer. After all, catching those criminals requires that we know who they are, what they do, track their every movement…

The bottom line

Why don’t we just do something about privacy loss? Perhaps because, paradoxically, we see the erosion of privacy and anonymity as a sort of action: action that protects us, enriches us, and causes no perceptible harm. If privacy activists seriously want to change the tide of privacy erosion, we must work to make people aware of the threat of privacy erosion, the loss of control over personal information, and the limited degree to which this loss gives us the benefits we crave. It’s really more of the same – and it is important to realize that those unconcerned by privacy issues are firmly entrenched in a rational, considered, and well-supported perspective.

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I have been struggling with the notion of privacy and what it means to lose it (or if I've ever had it).

What, in your opinion, is the impact to me if I lose my privacy if "I have nothing to hide"?

Alternately, if I have something to hide, does that necessarily make me a "bad guy"? It almost implies that if I want to avoid sharing something I have malicious intent.

If the benefits are huge, what really is the cost? what are YOU afraid of?

Posted by: James vK at April 21, 2005 03:00 PM

The first part of your essay is bullshit, the part about fear. The real point comes from the second part, which shows that people simply don't give a damn about their own privacy, because they don't see any reason to care. It doesn't mean anything to them.

Apply that fact, amply demonstrated by the examples you give and many more, back to the cases you describe in the first part. Why don't people care about harming the privacy of criminals? Is it because, as you say, they are afraid? No! It's because they don't see any value to privacy. Because privacy is valueless, there is no reason to oppose privacy-impairing regulations.

In short, there is nothing to explain about people's lack of respect for criminals' privacy, even when it hurts their own privacy. You don't have to invoke fear, or revenge, or any of the other tired analyses that are used to scold and shame the average person. People don't support anti-privacy measures out of malice or dark emotion; they simply don't see the value in privacy that you do.

It is ultimately a matter of taste. You like privacy more than most people. And this shocks and outrages you. How dare people disagree with you! How dare they have their own tastes and make their own decisions about what is important in their lives!

I suggest that a more productive attitude for those who care about privacy is to learn about the measures and technologies that can be used to protect privacy on an individual level. Be realistic about what kinds of privacy are possible in an increasingly technological world, but be proactive in terms of working to protect your own personal privacy.

But don't try to change other people. They have a right to their own opinions about what is important in their lives. If they don't care about protecting their privacy, don't scold them. Respect them! Respect the fact that others may value privacy differently than you do.

Posted by: Cypherpunk at April 22, 2005 02:25 PM

hey cypherpunk - inflammatory language aside, surely you are not suggesting that one ought never to try to influence the value choices of others, or are you?

looks like you are doing the very same thing in your post, no ?!

Posted by: ian at April 24, 2005 12:48 AM

James, how many times have you looked back on a decision and thought 'if only I knew..', or 'if only I had considered...'? The reason that 'hindsight is better than foresight' is that things look different AFTER a decision is made.

Once we lose our privacy, it is lost. We can't easily retrieve our private information (think Paris Hilton and the infamous videos, though of course that might not be the best example!). We can't easily undo our permission for the many incursions into our private lives. So it is best if the initial decision is a carefully considered one, and it is best if we have some insight into our own motives for making it.

As for the impact of the loss of privacy, it isn't hard to imagine scenarios where the loss of privacy is a negative thing. Do I really want to live in a world where my insurance company could conceivably find out what I purchased at the grocery store? Or where my employer could use the GPS records from my rental car to find out everywhere I went a recent business trip?

Personally, I'm not that bothered by giving out my personal information -- but I have this nagging feeling that maybe I should be. So far, I can deal with the junk mail plugging my mailbox(es), the strange feeling of being called by name in places where I thought I was unknown, and the unwelcome knowledge that most of my phone calls announce to the receiver exactly where I'm calling from. I was more disturbed, however, by a recent fundraising letter from my local hospital that referred (though obliquely) to details of my latest visit to the emergency room in justifying their call for additional funding. I thought perhaps it was a coincidence, until friends revealed that THEIR letters were similarly targeted. I can't say that I've experienced any harm from this, but I certainly have a sense of unease. Perhaps that is the biggest cost.

Posted by: Jacquie at April 25, 2005 07:57 AM

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