posted Aug 31, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for Who Needs Privacy?. (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)

To go back to the argument that started this all, "If I'm doing nothing wrong, I don't need privacy", what an incredibly simplistic and naive view of privacy that exemplifies! It would be nice if we could simplify privacy down to only "hiding crimes" and make a hard-and-fast judgement on privacy that applies for all, but it just doesn't work in the real world. "Hiding crimes" is only one rather small aspect of the whole of privacy, and it's not even a very interesting one in the final analysis. It's just a particular case involving high levels of harm, which isn't that unusual as many other privacy violations can include similar levels of harm without involving crime; ask anybody who has had to recover from identity theft how much fun that is. It is incredibly short-sighted to take that small aspect of privacy and try to extend it to cover all cases.

It is equally foolhardy to force one person's values onto all, as it would be foolhardy to do so in the monetary arena. Some people may value their privacy so little that they are effectively willing to give everything away, but that does not imply that that is necessarily true for everyone. (I wonder how many people truly don't value their privacy, and how many people would suddenly value it if a fair market arose that would pay you a fair price for your privacy-sensitive information. ) One of the Great Truths of Life is that people value things differently; this is a very important part of life and can not be simply waved away just because you only see your own viewpoint, and thus see only one value for things.

In fact, another way of phrasing my rebuttal to the "If I'm doing nothing wrong, I don't need privacy" line is based on pure economics: When your privacy is violated without mutually agreeable compensation, you are quite literally being stolen from. If you don't really care about privacy, that's fine, but you should still be compensated for the information being taken from you. You are literally losing value measurable in dollars in today's anarchic environment every time your privacy is invaded.

How do you know there is a value measured in dollars? A corporation would not bother to collect and sell such information if there was no monetary benefit, so the simple observation that the corporations obviously consider themselves enriched by this privacy-sensitive information is sufficient to show that it has a dollar value to them. It would be hard to put a solid number on such a diffuse asset for a corporation, but for a more solid number, criminals were able to sell stolen identity information for as much as $60 per record in 2002. I'd guess that was a conservative valuation, too, since those records were used to commit large-scale credit fraud.

Privacy-sensitive information is treated so cavalierly now that it is leaked without a second thought:

One credit card company kept calling and calling even though I repeatedly said it was a wrong number. They insisted, so one day, I just never said I wasn't the guy they were looking for.. It got scary: I never realized how easy it is to get information from people like this.. These repo/credit companies call and give you soo [sic] much information without verifying who they are talking to. I knew all about this guy that had a white ford ranger pickup about to be repo'd, he only had a PO box (haha they sold a pickup to a guy with no address), he made cabinets, lived in New Mexico, had my phone number, hadn't paid his $239/mo payment for 4 months, AND I verified his social security number. I got all this information through passively sitting through their "can you confirm your address is..." type questions. - "Broodje" on Slashdot

Why bother validating you're talking to who you think you're talking to, when there's no penalty for leaking this information? Note with a name and a social security number, "Broodje" could have committed any credit card fraud he'd please. Identity theft can never be completely eliminated, but such casual treatment of privacy-sensitive data makes it easy; if data was treated with more respect and more suspicion it would be much more difficult to commit identity theft.

Who need privacy? Everybody! Everybody, that is, who is interested in not being forced into subservient relationships, including criminal ones, by any entity that happens to have the power to collect information that might be harmful to you. I suppose if you don't mind this subservience, then privacy issues won't bother you. But please forgive the rest of us for objecting to the yoke.

In the era of "power politics" where every conceivable petty "power struggle" is immediately transformed into a violent struggle of epic proportions, where people equate denying a promotion based on race to murder with a straight face, it's easy to tune this line of reasoning out. But I think at the core of the power rhetoric there is still some kernel of truth. When a telemarketer calls me because they have my number, obtained through a privacy breach, and they take 10 seconds of my life away (which is about as far as they can get now), that is a real power they have over me. This is hardly the end of the world, yet one should not make the mistake of exaggerating in the opposite direction. This is a real effect, and in the course of your life, the amount of your time wasted by telemarketers becomes significant, time you cannot get back. It's hard to see because there's no alternate world you can peek into to see a life without privacy invasions to compare to, but this is very, very real. As people continue to be complacent and unable to perceive the effects clearly, they are getting worse and worse.

Why can I safely predict privacy violations will continue to get worse? Because there is an inherent economic interest in pushing privacy violations as far as possible, by definition. Violating privacy means some value profit for the violator, with no motivation to stop and every motivation to increase the violations. Until we actively fight this as a society, it will get worse indefinitely. Someday we will rise to fight this, too, because the intrusion is going to monotonically increase in the absence of backlash.


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