How much does privacy really cost?

How many people do you know who do not have at least one social media account? Or does not have a smartphone? We live in a day and age where our degrees of connectedness is vast. We have access to more information than ever before, so much so, that we often lament suffering from information overload and information fatigue. In 2009, Pete Cashmore wrote Privacy is dead, and social media hold the smoking gun.” In 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden worked with Glenn Greenwald to bring to light the NSA surveillance program, which includes a vast array of data on individuals. While both of these examples raised alarms of our privacy disappearing, and there was concern and even outrage, how much has really changed to better protect our privacy? We are very social beings and have certainly gained many advantages by being so publicly connected and sharing many details about ourselves and our lives. This need and tendency to share comes with some costs, such as loss of privacy. What is the cost if we don’t share?

Information overload as well as the challenges of being able to decipher good information from misinformation have contributed to this culture of fear today. According to the Pew Research Center, “52% described themselves as “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about government surveillance of Americans’ data and electronic communications,” with Americans more in favor of surveillance of suspected terrorists as well as country leaders and less in favor of surveillance of ordinary citizens. Yet, how can policy be developed that effectively differentiates between “good” citizenship versus potentially “bad” citizenship? Beyond that, what data and information is fair game?

In a series of TED talks that look at the data we readily share online and how that data is mined, there are several interesting, and seemingly good, uses of that data. From the artistic (Insightful human portraits made from data) to the sociological data mapping (Social maps that reveal a city’s intersections–and separations) to psychological behavior predictability (Your social media “likes” expose more than you think). However, this same series also highlights that not all this information and data mining can lead to beneficial results, as seen with how prevalent and elusive cybercrime is, how police are tracking and keeping information beyond criminal activity, that we’re being tracked by more than we know, and how easy it is to get even sensitive information from a simple picture. We have expectations that companies and the government have our best interests at heart, and indeed a great deal of the data that is mined does provide us with countless benefits, so we are enticed to share. Yet that same data can lead to other consequences that should be looked at more for the true intent behind the data.

As the Pew Research Center highlights in its report, keeping an eye on “bad” citizens and possible terrorists is okay. This follows with the attitude that surveillance in general is fine because “I have nothing to hide.” Alessandro Acquisti states “privacy is not about having something negative to hide” which, if so, then privacy is really more about freedom. In Why Privacy Matters, Greenwald illustrates that the internet really should be a tool of liberation and democratization, yet the data we are sharing and more importantly what companies and governments are doing with that data, is a mechanism to control society. The mere idea of being watched leads a society to be more compliant and conformist. Freedom provides for and allows opportunities of creativity, exploration, conflict, and progression. In his talk, Greenwald says “when we allow a society to exist in which we’re subject to constant monitoring, we allow the essence of human freedom to be severely crippled.” And that is a high price to pay.


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