understanding the importance and impact of anonymity and authentication in a networked society
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The Erosion of Privacy: Why Don't We Care?
By: Jacquelyn Burkell

April 19, 2005

There’s no doubt our privacy – and our anonymity – are every day being eroded. Instances are myriad in number, and only increasing. While preferred customer accounts, email monitoring, and web browser cookies are present everywhere, what is on the horizon should perhaps be of even more concern: RFIDs in our rental cars, biometrically coded passports, and implanted ID tags. And, of course, the technologically possible future presents even more extreme examples, including ‘computers that can read our brain waves’ (available instances include some monkeys and one man rendered quadriplegic in an accident: he reports that while the technology works in principle, he isn’t planning to incorporate it into his life any day soon, since the effort it takes is immense and the rewards relatively few).

So, why don’t people care? Why aren’t we, as a culture, rising up in protest against those who would constantly collect, refine, transmit, integrate, and ultimately use our personal information?

We’re too afraid: not of Big Brother, but of each other. When the twin towers fell, they raised a tsunami of interpersonal paranoia. We’re afraid of flying, of eating genetically modified foods, and of identity theft. More to the point, we’re afraid of malignant others: pedophiles who would snatch our children, terrorists who would hijack our planes, and criminals who would steal our names and reputations. And the answer to this fear? Information! Theirs, of course, not ours: those malign actors (and even those who might potentially be malignant) must be tracked, known, numbered, followed. In Canada, we’re about to release Karla Homolka, a notorious serial killer, from prison. According to a recent article in the Globe and Mail (Tuesday April 12, Timothy Appleby), Homolka will be kept “on a short leash and in plain view”, an arrangement that is “without precedent in Canada”. We are collectively convinced that this arrangement will make us safer (a poor bet at best), and collectively indifferent to any threat this approach might ultimately pose to our own privacy.
We may not be smart enough to recognize that compromising the privacy of criminals and pedophiles privacy necessarily compromises our own. But that, I think, is a naïve view. Instead, it is more likely that the tradeoff is worth it – that we have ‘nothing to hide’ (a familiar chorus), and so should not fear surveillance. In balance, the gain (of perceived safety) outweighs the loss (of privacy and anonymity).

We gain by our own loss

As decision makers, we are more comfortable with the short time horizon – rewards and punishments that are close at hand have far more bearing on our decisions than outcomes that will come to pass some time in the future. It isn’t even that we see these distant results as uncertain – just somehow vague, less pressing, in the way that distant objects on a sunny day become hazy and indistinct. In the realm of personal decision making with respect to data protection, the immediate results are positive: we gain money (in the form of preferred customer discounts), information (as in personalized recommendations for books we might like), and a measure of prestige (if only illusory: being addressed by name as you pay for your purchases has to make you feel more important!).

Most of us are not unaware of the potential, or perhaps certain but delayed, cost. Sure, the proportion of spam in my email goes up – but I just institute better filters to get rid of it. Sure, I receive more and more offers for unwanted credit cards in my ‘snail mail’, each offer targeted with respect to my personal spending habits and income – but I can just throw them away. The incremental benefits I gain far outweigh what seem to be minor inconveniences – and I’m simply unaware of the big looming cost to privacy that is on the horizon.

We’ve got nothing to hide

That brings us to the chorus of the indifferent: We have nothing to hide. It seems that we’ve constructed data privacy as something that protects the ‘bad guys’, while offering nothing to those whose lives are ‘open books’. And even those cases (identity theft comes to mind) where the ordinary citizen is seriously threatened by the loss of control of their own personal information, privacy isn’t seen as the answer. After all, catching those criminals requires that we know who they are, what they do, track their every movement…

The bottom line

Why don’t we just do something about privacy loss? Perhaps because, paradoxically, we see the erosion of privacy and anonymity as a sort of action: action that protects us, enriches us, and causes no perceptible harm. If privacy activists seriously want to change the tide of privacy erosion, we must work to make people aware of the threat of privacy erosion, the loss of control over personal information, and the limited degree to which this loss gives us the benefits we crave. It’s really more of the same – and it is important to realize that those unconcerned by privacy issues are firmly entrenched in a rational, considered, and well-supported perspective.

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