Thursday, January 16, 2014

[Reader Question] Is protecting your privacy your job or your fundamental right?



Every day brings new revelations about how our privacy is being diminished. Whether it is the NSA hacking into our computers and recording our telephone calls, or websites selling our browsing data, it is clear that much of what we took for granted as private is as public as it gets. And, perhaps worse (or perhaps not), it isn’t just that our information is out there, it is that our information is a commodity. Lots of people are making a great deal of money off of our lives, but most of us don’t see any of it. This is complicated by the fact that opting-out of the data-mining trade is virtually impossible for most of us. To do it, one would have to opt-out of most other things as well: always pay cash, always anonymize our internet activity, and pull ourselves largely off the grid. It doesn’t feel like there is much choice at all. People, companies, and the government will know about
what we do.

This brings us to reader Jay’s question: “Is protecting your privacy your job or your fundamental right?” It is, I think, a really interesting formulation. It assumes, first that there are just two options, the first is that protecting our privacy is our own responsibility, and as a consequence, if data about us gets “out there,” we are somehow negligent. It is our own fault.
The second suggests that those who trade in our information are somehow being immoral, and that they violate us by sharing information. Philosophically, this underscores the fact that for many people, we are what we do, and by sharing information about what we do, data miners are, in some sense, selling us, our lives, and our identities.

I am of several minds on this issue. The first is that I don’t really care whether Amazon.com shares my browsing or purchasing history with eBay. If I’m going to get advertisements, I might as well get ones that interest me. However, I am also well aware that information can be used as a weapon, especially by enemies, troublemakers, or the government. It is overly simplistic to fall back on the claim that those who have nothing to hide shouldn’t be afraid of their information getting out. Sometimes we want things just for ourselves, even if those things are harmless. For example:

You might ask me what I’m reading and maybe I don’t want to tell you, not because what I’m reading is embarrassing or illegal, but simply because I don’t want to. I shouldn’t have to tell you anything. Maybe it’s just none of your business.

I think, in the end, the lack of privacy might make some things that are now seen as embarrassing less so. Sexual proclivities, mistakes we’ve made, and medical maladies, our weight, habits, and wealth, maybe the more we know about others the more we’ll realize that we shouldn’t be ambivalent about our desires or behaviors. But making us feel better about ourselves and others may not be worth giving up those parts of ourselves that we don’t want to share. We are not always public; we shouldn’t have to be so.

So, with that in mind, I ask you, is keeping our information private our own responsibility, and a personal choice, or is privacy a fundamental right that can only be ignored in the most dire of circumstances, if at all? Or is there a third option that Jay missed?

Thanks for the great question, Jay! 

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