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We Used to Watch

August 31, 2010

The strongest argument that undercuts a blind or absolutist position often taken by privacy advocates is that privacy must be balanced against the ability to go out and learn and do things with information.  Often, very good things.  For example, this Google Chrome experiment with Arcade Fire requires you to enter the address of the house you grew up in, but that technology makes the experience all the more personal and powerful.  It is what makes the experience the best musical experiment the web has had to offer of the summer (sorry, Ceelo).  We can see the very real benefits of sharing our private information, and therefore do so willingly: more often than not, we gain an experience that is tailored to our hopes, dreams, memories, desires, and so on.  And from a policy perspective, we certainly don’t want to sacrifice our ability to learn and know and share simply to insulate ourselves from the abuses that may result from those activities.

Of course, I have certainly expressed my share of wariness at our unthinking willingness to press the feeder button and get little pellets of joy without thinking about the long-term costs or the ecosystem of privacy we are (in-)advertently creating for ourselves.  As with anything, an unconscious decision that fails to take account of the costs and benefits is going to be a bad decision when someone’s interests lie in stark opposition to the unthinking mob’s.  Because information is valuable, we need to be aware of who we’re giving ours to, and how they are constraining in using or reselling it.

Powerful data-mining tools are available not only to legitimate corporations and researchers, but also to crooks, con men and creeps. As more data about us is collected and shared online, the threats from unsanctioned interceptions of the data grow. Criminal syndicates can use purloined information about our identities to commit financial fraud, and stalkers can use locational data to track our whereabouts.

Personalization’s evil twin is manipulation. As mathematicians and marketers refine data-mining algorithms, they gain more precise ways to predict people’s behavior as well as how they’ll react when they’re presented with online ads and other digital stimuli.

So we need to pay attention to the bargain we’ve struck.  But when Google offers to give us phone calls in exchange for the ability to listen in and record it all or when Facebook offers facial recognition technology to save you a few seconds of tagging your friends but gives them every picture you may or may not want to be seen in, we should be thinking about what we’re giving up and (more importantly) to whom.  The solution is not to don a tinfoil hat or hide out in a cave; rather, it is to take a seat at the bargaining table and not let the allure of an online trinket or two distract us from the Mephistophelian deal being inked on our behalf.

Right now, we seem to be forgetting that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  And forgetting to watch the watchers.

P.S. If you ever need to remind yourself of the importance of privacy vigilance, just read this.

Cardinal Richelieu understood the value of surveillance when he famously said, “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.” Watch someone long enough, and you’ll find something to arrest — or just blackmail — with. Privacy is important because without it, surveillance information will be abused: to peep, to sell to marketers and to spy on political enemies — whoever they happen to be at the time.

Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we’re doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.

We do nothing wrong when we make love or go to the bathroom. We are not deliberately hiding anything when we seek out private places for reflection or conversation. We keep private journals, sing in the privacy of the shower, and write letters to secret lovers and then burn them. Privacy is a basic human need.

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