The Many Facets of Privacy

How to Think About Privacy in Today’s Data-Driven World
December 5, 2018

Privacy is a very broad topic. It can mean anything from the type of information you share with social media platforms like Facebook to how those platforms keep your information secure to whether the government can access your information.

As I write on this topic, there is at least one paradigm you should understand: It is not evil for technology companies to utilize the information you voluntarily share with them while government access to your data without your knowledge or permission is highly concerning.

It is not evil for technology companies to utilize the information you voluntarily share with them while government access to your data without your knowledge or permission is highly concerning.

It is not evil for a tech company like Facebook or Twitter to anonymize, aggregate, and monetize information about you when you voluntarily share it with them. Private companies cannot put you in prison, investigate you, or bring the weight of government authority against you. The government, though, has the potential to ruin a person’s life, take away their liberty, or confiscate wealth. When the government accesses information about you, or information you have created, for investigative purposes, it ought to have good reasons for doing so.

When given a choice between voluntary exchange with private companies and involuntary exchange with the government, you should always default to voluntary exchange.

Reputable private companies have a motivation both to keep consumer data relatively secure and to be somewhat transparent about how they use it. If reputable platforms abuse trust, people will either stop using the platform or, where possible, switch to another platform. And for those who doubt that competitors to the current platforms will emerge, recall that a decade or so ago, most people had Myspace accounts, used primarily Windows-based PCs, and accessed the internet through AOL.

Voluntary exchanges have opened doors and provided services to people they may not otherwise be able to afford. Think about it; anyone with access to the internet, whether at home or at a library, can have email addresses, cloud storage, access to maps and directions, a digital wallet, and so much more. When surveyed, most people place a minimal value on the information they share with providers, but highly value the services they receive.

When surveyed, most people place a minimal value on the information they share with providers, but highly value the services they receive.

Social media platforms benefit from people’s desire to share information. People join Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on because they want to share their opinions, photographs, or what they are doing with their friends or families. The information platforms gather is information people want to share—in the strictest sense, people do not want the information to be private.

Take Facebook for example. People create Facebook accounts for the purpose of connecting with friends, new and old. They like to share videos of grandkids or cute cats. They like to share an article they just read on a local news story. In so doing, people voluntarily reveal to the world the relationships they have with others, who their family members are, where they live, and so on. In return for posting the information to Facebook, people receive services of great value to themselves.

Any government, or individual, that wants to interfere with this exchange does so at its peril. Laws, like the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) or California’s privacy legislation will disproportionally interfere with the ability of the poor and underprivileged to access the services they need.

American firms, for example, have spent over an estimated $9 billion in an attempt to comply with GDPR. According to Forbes, though, the actual costs will be much higher as “many smaller firms and companies to shut down operations or fold entirely. Additionally, as of publishing this article, Google, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook have already had lawsuits filed against them and face up to $8.15 billion (EUR 7 billion) in fines.”

Laws impacting the voluntary exchange of information in return for a service or software also impacts innovation. GDPR allows a person to demand that a company erase all information about him or her. Some technologies are built upon the permanency of data. One of these technologies is blockchain, or distributed ledger technology. You may recognize a monetary application of blockchain, Bitcoin. Blockchain has incredible potential, especially in developing countries where cryptocurrencies may allow individuals with smartphones and access to mobile data to provide mediums of exchange without a bank. But, with GDPR, blockchain may not be implemented or otherwise be limited in its applications.

Having discussed, at length, the first application of privacy—the voluntary exchange for a service—I will briefly discuss the final two: data security and government access to data.

Once companies obtain individuals’ information they have a duty to safeguard it. Even the smallest detail about a person may provide bad actors the information they need to reset a password, access other databases, or otherwise allow them to steal a person’s identity. People tend to reuse passwords (hint: don’t). If a company fails to secure password records and bad actors access them, the bad actors may be able to guess banking, credit card, or other passwords.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that individuals will be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures…” and that “no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause…” Privacy, in the American tradition, means that the government should not be able to access your information, such as your emails, your private correspondences, or the pictures on your smartphone, without a warrant. Unfortunately, the government accesses some information with nothing more than a subpoena, or worse, without warrants or probable cause through various surveillance programs.

Privacy, in the American tradition, means that the government should not be able to access your information, such as your emails, your private correspondences, or the pictures on your smartphone, without a warrant.

Privacy is a broad topic. There is a tendency to conflate the categories, though I will try to be as clear as possible. Again, remember that there are three buckets: Voluntary exchange of information for services or software, data security, and freedom from unwarranted government surveillance. Finally, remember the paradigm I stated earlier: It is not evil for a technology company to use the information you voluntarily share with them while government access to your information without your knowledge or permission is highly concerning.