The problem isn’t so much that we haven’t set up a legal architecture to preserve our online privacy from the government; it’s that we haven’t set up a legal architecture to preserve our online privacy from anyone at all. If we don’t have laws and regulations that create meaningful zones of online privacy from corporations, the attempt to create online privacy from the government will be an absurdity.
I think that creating a narrative of “privacy” is confusing the issue. Privacy sounds like some abstract concept about remaining anonymous or something. The issue is not the disclosure of information but the control of the disclosure of information. When you tell your friend that you have diabetes, then some personal information about you has been disclosed. Has your privacy decreased? Well, yes, absolutely. But we are not trying to protect privacy only the control of the disclosure of information. So, when you send an email via Gmail or make a purchase at Target with your credit card, you are clearly sharing information with another individual or group of individuals. Your “privacy” was clearly diminished. But you had control over that. Even if Google tells you that they will mine that data and sell it to third-party advertisers, you chose to share that information with them. So, the question is not whether or not individuals should have privacy, but whether or not they should be forced to disclose information about themselves to parties that they choose not to. Should an individual be forced to disclose information to a party, like the NSA, unwillingly? Well, control of the disclosure of information is valuable property. Should that property be forcibly taken from an individual?
How valuable is this property? Well, it is worth billions of dollars. Consider just this example. The NSA program collects information on credit card transactions:
But people familiar with the NSA’s operations said the initiative also encompasses…purchase information from credit-card providers.
Now consider how much money Google is spending to try and collect this same information:
The company has dedicated hundreds of developers to Wallet and spent about $300 million to acquire digital payment startups to help develop the app.
For Google, the goal wasn’t to generate fee revenue from the transactions, as banks, PayPal (EBAY), and other companies do. The idea was to collect data on consumer habits and target ads to them. Google pays such high fees to the credit-card companies it works with, though, that it loses money on every transaction
Bedier, a former PayPal executive who joined Google in 2011, says the streamlining is a big shift and that he was encouraged to spend freely to develop Google Wallet.
Jason Gardner, the CEO of loyalty-card startup Marqeta, says brick-and-mortar payment information is too lucrative a possibility for Google to ignore. “The amount of data at the point of sale is so significant that they’re not going to throw in the towel,” he says.
So, Google is willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to entice people to disclose credit card purchase information. I would say that that property is pretty valuable. Politicians, appreciating value like everyone else, naturally want acquire this value. Will we protect it? It doesn’t look like it.
You should not think that recent events will simply cement a previous status quo in place, rather it moves us down a very particular path and probably makes the entire problem worse.
This whole post was basically a complicated way of saying, “Unprotected property is lost.”
Suppose a homeowner witnesses a burglar sneaking out of his house holding his toaster. After some contemplation, he chooses not to put a lock on his front door. A few days later he is outraged to find his laptop stolen. What happened? The homeowner either:
- Thought that burglar was only interested in low-value items.
- Didn’t think that burglar knew that there were other valuable items in the house.
- Didn’t think that the burglar knew the value of the other items in his house like his laptop.
- Thought that the burglar was satiated with capturing only a little value.
- Didn’t value his laptop.
- Thought protecting his valuables was not worth the hassle of having to unlock his house when he got home.
We seem to not be attempting to put a lock on the tremendous value that we have in controlling the disclosure of information that we possess. For which of the above reasons?