Two Questions about Privacy

This module is going to take a look at two topics that might, at first, seem to have very little to do with each other. We’ll first talk about privacy, and then about property. The link between these two is that both of these areas of our life are being impacted by expansions and improvements in technology.

The Value of Privacy

“I value my privacy” is an expression that sounds familiar to us. In fact, I’d wager that some of us have said those words in the past. I’d also wager that we probably assume that we know what they mean. It seems like such a simple phrase.

The truth of the matter is, though, that the value of privacy is a murky subject. At least two questions need to be asked:

How much do we value it?

Why do we value it?

Let’s take a look at the first question now, and come back to the other question after we’ve read what Deborah Johnson has to say in her paper “Privacy”.

When we talk of privacy we are generally talking about some amount of information about ourselves that we have the option of keeping to ourselves. We might think of it as information that we can claim sole ownership of. It’s ours to dispense as we prefer. Private information is traded between friends as people build relationships together. This might just be what it means to have friends or other intimate relationships. Your friends are those people with whom you keep less private than you do with other people, and the closer the relationship the less is kept private.

We also use privacy as a commodity in other ways. Just like labor, our privacy is a commodity that can be traded, and it will be traded at different rates by different people. We trade it for access to such things as online communities and websites when we provide them with our email addresses and other contact information. We also do it when we participate in surveys and silly online “tests” for things like personality profiles and “What superhero am I?” Sometimes our privacy is even given away freely. When we use social media sites like Facebook or Twitter or Blogger, we are letting people into our lives more intimately than we ever have before. This effectively opens our lives up to greater scrutiny than ever before. We’re in control of the things that we post online, but there are big differences between my saying something to a group of friends in a bar and my posting a tweet of the exact same comment. One of those cases is much more private than the other.

Privacy is also traded for money and convenience. We’ve been doing this for years, and the frequency seems to have been ramping up. Take a look at your key ring. How many little tags do you have on that ring? Here’s what mine looks like.

From a quick glance at that key ring, we can see what stores a person shops in, and also which stores have private information about that person. When you get one of those little key tags, you have generally given the store you’re shopping in information like your name, sex, address, phone number and email address. Sometimes you may give them more information or less, but you’re always giving up some information about yourself right at the start. Then, as you shop, you’re filling the company in on what a person like you buys. They know what products you buy, what coupons you’re using, how often you buy those things, what things you buy at what times of year, how many of those things you’re buying, and lots of other bits of information. We do this so that we can get better deals on the products that we buy in the store, and many of us save several dollars every trip by giving up that information.

You might be thinking, “So, they know that I like Hot Pockets and Charmin. So what?” Part of the reason that stores want this information is that it helps them know how to target advertising (we’ll talk about that in the next Module), but it also gives them a picture of what their customers are like and what other products they should carry in order to make their business more enticing. A business that attracts more people will (hopefully) make greater profits and be more successful. They are, in effect, using your private information to increase their profits. We’re saving money by giving out our personal information, and they’re using it to make a profit.

You might also consider what sorts of information your online activities are giving away about you. When you go to Google (or any other search engine) and type in a query, that information is stored and used to show you advertisements that might appeal to you and to refine their own search algorithms so that they can improve their services for you and everyone else.

As Johnson will point out, the advances in technology have magnified the ability to gather data about persons and groups of people. The information that you put out into the world can be, and is being, collated and massaged in order to give businesses, politicians and others the ability to meet our needs, and also to tell us what we’d like to hear.

This clip is from the Documentary The Persuaders by PBS:

We’re trading our information commercially, and that information is being gathered and sold to other parties around the world. We may have lost the ability to control who has information about us. Have we sold our privacy too cheaply?