The Many Ways in Which the Internet Has Given Us More Privacy

June 8, 2011 at 6:52 pm Leave a comment

There are many, many things that digital technology allows us to do more privately today than we ever could. Consider:

The ability of marginalized or oppressed individuals to leverage the privacy of online communication tools to unite in support of a cause, or simply to find each other, has been earth-shattering.

  • It has played a key role in the ongoing Middle East uprisings. The Internet helps primarily by enabling rapid communication and coordination, but being able to do it covertlyclumsy governmental hacking attempts notwithstanding—is an equally important aspect.
  • Clay Shirky tells the story of how some of meetup.com’s most popular groups were (ir)religious communities that don’t find support in broader U.S. culture — Pagans, ex-Jehovah’s witnesses, atheists, etc.
  • STD-positive individuals can use online dating sites targeted at their group. Can you imagine the Sisyphean frustration of trying to date offline and find a compatible partner if you have an STD?

In the political realm, the anonymity afforded by Wikileaks is leading to a challenge to the legitimacy of high-level government actors, if not entire governments. Bitcoin is another anonymity technology that shows the potential to have serious political effects. [1]

Most of us benefit at an everyday level from improved privacy. When we read, search, or buy online, people around us don’t find out about it. This is vastly more private than checking out a book from a library or buying something at a store. [2]

We’ve benefited not only in our mundane activities, but our kinky ones as well. We take and exchange naked pictures all the time, never having been able to do so back when it involved getting it developed at the store. And slightly over half of us have taken advantage of the fact that “hiding one’s porn” is trivial today compared to the bad old days of magazines.

I could go on—I haven’t even mentioned the uses of Tor or encryption, freely available to anyone willing to invest a little effort—but I’ve made my point. Of course, I’ve only presented one half of the story. The other half, that technology is also allowing us to expose ourselves in ways never before, has been told so many times by so many people, and so loudly, that it is drowning out meaningful conversation about privacy.

Having presented the above evidence, I posit that technology by itself is actually largely neutral with respect to privacy, in that it enhances the privacy of some types of actions and encumbers that of others. Which direction society takes is up to us. In other words, I’m asserting the negation of technological determinism, applied to privacy.

While I do believe that privacy-infringing technologies have been adopted more pervasively than privacy-enhancing ones, I would say that the disparity is far smaller than it is generally thought to be. Why the mismatch in perception? A curious collective cognitive bias. Observe that almost every one of the examples above is generally seen as a new kind of activity enabled by technology whereas they are really examples of technology allowing us to do a familiar activity, but with more privacy (among other benefits).

Another reason for the cognitive bias is our tendency to focus on the dangers and the negatives of technology. Let’s go back do the nude pictures example: just about everyone does it, but only a small number—perhaps 1%?—suffer some harm from it. Like Schneier says, if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it.

To the extent that privacy-infringing technologies have been more successful, it’s a choice we’ve collectively made. Demand for social networking has been so strong that the sector has somehow invented a halfway workable business model, even though it took several tries to get there. But demand for encryption has been so weak that the market never matured enough to make it usable to the general public.

The disparity could be because we don’t know what’s good for us—volumes have been written about this—but it could also be partly because there are costs and benefits to giving up our privacy, and the benefits, in proportion to the costs, are rather higher than is generally made out to be.

Those are all questions worth pondering, but I hope I have convinced you of this: the idea that information technology inherently invades privacy is oversimplified and misleading. If we’re giving up privacy, we have only ourselves to blame.

[1] Many privacy-enhancing technologies are morally ambiguous. I’m merely listing the ways in which people benefit from privacy, regardless of whether they’re using it for good or evil.

[2] It is probably true that the Internet has made it easier for government, advertisers etc. to track your activities. But it doesn’t change the fact that there’s a privacy benefit to regular people in an everyday context, who are far more concerned about keeping secrets from their family, friends and neighbors than about abstract threats.

[ETA] This essay examines the role of consumers in shaping the direction of technology, whereas the next one looks at the role of creators.

Thanks to Ann Kilzer for comments on a draft.

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About 33bits.org

I'm an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton. I research (and teach) information privacy and security, and moonlight in technology policy.

This is a blog about my research on breaking data anonymization, and more broadly about information privacy, law and policy.

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