Let’s Face It, We Don’t Really Care About Privacy
It seems that not a week goes by these days that we don’t hear about another massive data breach. From large-scale retailers like Target to money center banks like JP Morgan, cybercrime runs rampant, violating our privacy and exposing our financial information.
The costs are enormous. A recent report by the Internet security company McAfee estimates that security breaches cost us over $400 billion globally, but that’s just a small part of the story. Our data, when combined with advanced algorithms, can reveal our most intimate secrets.
So it is curious, to say the least, that we don’t seem to care very much. While there was a spike of concern following the massive Edward Snowden leaks, years of warnings from industry groups and government organizations have mostly gone unheeded. Even now, despite the uproar during the Snowden affair, the fervor has mostly died down. Why is that?
A Brief History Of Privacy
While cybercrime is relatively new, our blasé attitude toward privacy is not. As Gregory Ferenstein reports in VentureBeat, before the Internet consumers readily chose postcards over letters and party lines over private connections. For over a century, when we have been given the option of price and convenience over privacy, we invariably choose the former.
In that light, our present lack of interest in our own privacy shouldn’t be so surprising. We can pay cash, but prefer the convenience of credit cards. It’s relatively easy to install ad blockers, but very few people do. We can turn off the cookies in our Internet browsers, but don’t want to continually re-enter our passwords and enjoy having personalized service.
A recent Pew survey reflects these attitudes. We are thoroughly aware that we are being monitored by governmental organizations, marketers, employers and even social acquaintances, but do little to deter it. In fact, we actively participate, sharing information on social media and monitoring the online activity of people we know and do business with.
So while we do value privacy, we value other things more. Value, after all, is a relative term.
The (Not So) Evil Ad Business
Privacy concerns aren’t just for Luddites. In fact, technologists, who are most fully aware of the dangers, are often the most fervent privacy advocates. Ethan Zuckerman, for example, recently wrote an article in The Atlantic calling advertising the Internet’s original sin. Strong words, especially coming from the guy who invented pop-up ads.
Zuckerman explains that he and his colleagues had all the best intentions, that they merely wanted to build useful tools for the benefit of everyone. Unfortunately, in order to finance their work, they had to produce revenue and that’s what led to the crass and annoying Internet ad culture we have today.
Yet as I argued in a previous post, Zuckerman’s apology is misplaced. The services of Zuckerman and his colleagues have to be paid for and, in the vast majority of cases, we prefer to pay them through advertising. All things being equal, marketers will pay more for consumers than consumers will pay for content.
And therein lies the conundrum. There truly is a dark side to technology, but it seems to be a danger that we’re more than willing to accept. We enjoy the benefits of mass personalization and that, unfortunately, requires massive monitoring. On some level, we seem to realize that.
Edward Snowden’s Folly
In the early days after 9/11, many of the world’s newspapers carried an fascinating graphic on their front pages. It displayed not only the identities of the hijackers, but their hierarchy—who the leaders were, how they were connected and the basic functioning of their command structure.
There were calls for swift retribution. Zacarias Moussaoui, the 20th hijacker who missed his flight, was arrested and convicted. The mastermind of the plot, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was captured and now languishes in Guantanamo. Law enforcement agencies were praised for their efforts, but no one questioned where their chart came from.
In truth, their methods have long been an open secret. Valdis Krebs published a paper describing how social network analysis was applied to counterterrorism as early as 2002. I first started writing about the NSA’s methods in 2009 and gave a more detailed analysis last year. The reality is that anybody who wanted to know what was going on, easily could have.
Nevertheless, when Edward Snowden, a highly paid contractor entrusted with a security clearance, stole thousands of government documents and ran off to Russia, he was praised by many who hailed him as a whistleblower.
The Price of Privacy
We all enjoy privacy. We like to retreat to our homes, keep conversations among our family and friends and pursue personal interests. We want our lives to be our own and to determine for ourselves what we want to do with them. Most legal systems recognize this as not only a preference, but indeed a human right.
Yet we also like to connect with opportunities that the outside world provides. We want to build credit ratings so that we can purchase more at lower cost. We like merchants to know our preferences so that they can cater their service to us. We enthusiastically engage with social media because it lowers the costs of social engagement.
In fact, as Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen point out in The New Digital Age, there is an increasing cost to privacy. Those who fail to keep up their profiles on LinkedIn and Facebook miss out on professional and social opportunities. We—and our governments—look upon people without a digital footprint not with admiration, but suspicion.
So privacy is not something we don’t put a whole lot of thought or effort into maintaining, but maybe we should. We seldom realize the value of something until it’s been lost.