Contradictions in privacy

In the xkcd comic, I’d be the nihilist; I don’t attach much value to my own privacy. Regardless of whether or not I choose to enforce it, I should have the right to privacy. But people who do wish to enforce their right unfortunately find themselves in the minority, and this is a problem. Because the vast majority of people are like me and will happily share their photos with Facebook, their internet history with Google and absolutely everything with the NSA (whoever they are), the maintenance of privacy is made almost impossible.

Though I’m not willing to expend much time or effort maintaining my own privacy (and it appears I’m not the only one), I do still have concerns about the erosion of privacy more generally and the apathy of people like me. See the TED talk at the bottom of this page for some good reasons. In the UK, 62% of internet users use FacebookYou needn’t be a crypto nut to know that using Facebook is a very efficient way to forego your right to privacy. If people wish to engage in activities that the majority of the population does, like join Facebook or use a mobile phone, they are given little choice but to jeopardise their own privacy. Many internet companies depend heavily on the use of our data, and because the majority of people are willing to share their data freely, the companies needn’t offer individuals the option to maintain a good level of privacy. But what would a life be like without Google or Apple or Microsoft or Facebook? Great, probably, but that’s not the point. People value these services and much of modern life depends on them. It’s easy to see how maintaining one’s privacy could result in social exclusion and have implications for one’s career. Why should we have to become the savage to save our right to privacy?

The way I see it is that my apathy imposes an externality on others; increasing the cost to those who value their privacy whether they choose to use privacy-jeopardising services or not: by decreasing the services’ protection of privacy if they do, and by entrenching the use of such services as a social norm if they don’t. The erosion of privacy is more costly to society than to the individual. I don’t know what the solution is, but it will surely have to come from a paternalistic state. Proper allocation of property rights might not be enough. There’d have to be serious regulation. Or you could take the incentives route. You could tax me, for one. Or tax the companies. By sharing my data with the world, Google et al are denying those concerned about their privacy the right to engage in almost-ubiquitous activities of modern society. Attaching a price to my private data, a tax for every nugget of information they share – regardless of whether I have given them permission or not – may discourage them from doing it quite so much.

[ted id=1848]

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.”

There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.

– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World