Sunday's New York Times was a Luddite's dream. Tthe paper's Sunday Review section had three lengthy opinion pieces dedicated to "Life Under Digital Dominance" (their words, not mine), including Evgeny Morozov's lengthy treatise that social media will kill originality because we're all too afraid to publicly "like" something on Facebook that our friends don't like, a plea to adopt European-style rules to keep data private and a particularly threatening piece by Lori Andrews promising sudden cuts in our personal credit lines and troubles obtaining insurance because Facebook is using us.
All three authors make good points, and they are points worth considering for anyone invested in a digital life. But they also brought to mind Reason magazine's June 2004 cover story - a remarkably poignant preview of the world we now live in. It was also a reminder that a lot of us are okay with the amount of information we choose to share online, and many of us even benefit from giving marketers, friends and co-workers a more complete picture of who we are.
The 2004 Reason issue was delivered to subscribers in a magazine that had an satellite photo of each subscriber's home on the cover, which Reason was able to obtain through public data and print with then state-of-the-art technology. As Nick Gillespie wrote in that issue's Editor's Note, the issue was dedicated to "describing how many of the popular and convenient transactions we take for granted are the result of readily accessible information that lays you bare to the prying eyes of others.
"Living in a database nation raises innumerable privacy concerns. But it also makes life easier and more prosperous," he said. "We may have kissed privacy goodbye -- and good riddance, too."
Some of the points raised in the Reason article seem dated nearly eight years later. But the basic premise from the Libertarian journal of political and economic thought remains essentially the same, whether we're talking about data collected by supermarket loyalty programs in 2004 or Facebook in 2012: "It's easy to complain about a subjective loss of privacy. It's more difficult to appreciate how information swapping accelerates economic activity. Like many other aspects of modern society, benefits are dispersed, amounting to a penny saved here or a dollar discounted there. But those sums add up quickly," Declan McCullagh wrote in the 2004 cover story.
Businesses gathering information on customers and potential customers, as well as employees and potential employees, is nothing new. Mediterranean merchants relied on a social network in the 11th century to track dishonest merchants selling their goods in foreign ports, and, more recently, in 1766, Adam Smith "stressed the importance of a positive reputation, which necessarily means that others have access to information about your past actions and therefore feel they can predict your future behavior."
What we fear now is not the fact that companies collect the data, but that they collect so much more of it with much greater ease. And we're also rightfully concerned about who has access to all that data. Most of us have made peace with the idea of SafeWay knowing we prefer chocolate chip over pistachio ice cream, and appreciate the coupons we get for our favorite flavor. But what happens when that data is sold to our health insurer, who ups our premium after deciding we're at risk for hypertension because of our ice cream consumption?
This is why it becomes important to read those privacy agreements most of us ignore. Frequent check-ins at your favorite pizza place on a restaurant review site may earn you a badge and a number one rating on the site, but is that virtual prize worth it if the site turns that data over to your health insurer? It doesn't matter if you only go to the pizza place because you like their garden salad (with low-fat dressing on the side), and your insurer won't necessarily know you run 20 miles a week unless you're also checking in at the gym on a regular basis.
Striking A Balance Between Privacy And Innovation
None of the Times' writers outright suggest legislation as a remedy for diminshing privacy, although Somini Sengupta's look at privacy laws in Europe comes close to advocating such a position, noting that every European country, as well as Canada, Australia and many Latin American countries have laws governing the use of online data. At the very least, there's an anti-business and, by extension, anti-innovation, tone in his news analysis.
"Europe has come to the conclusion that none of the companies can be trusted," Simon Davies, the director of the London-based nonprofit Privacy International, told Sengupta. "The European Commission is responding to public demand. There is a growing mood of despondency about the privacy issue."
Sengupta's article does not, however, mention that in the United States the civil court system has dealt with egregious privacy law violations not addressed by existing legislation. Likewise, Andrews's op-ed notes that 93% of us, according to polls, think that Internet companies should always ask for permission before using personal information, without noting that those polls never present the privacy question against the backdrop of more privacy may very well mean higher costs and less innovation.
As a Libertarian journal, Reason predictably took the stance that protecting privacy is largely a matter of personal responsibility. But it's a message that bears repeating now. It's a safe bet that the people most concerned with privacy - the domestic abuse victims and the Syrian dissidents mentioned by privacy advocate Rebecca MacKinnon mentions in Sengupta's article - have taken steps to protect their personal information. And if they haven't, whose fault is it?
"If you have a democratic society, the point is not to say whatever is good for the majority is all we need," MacKinnon said.
But turning her argument around, does that mean whatever is needed for the minority is good for the rest of us?
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