The Costs of Privacy

Online privacy continues to be a major societal issue, and for me personally, it hasn’t been one that I’ve felt like I really understood. Sure, cell phone companies tracking my location sounds freaky and nobody likes having the shoes they googled show up in Facebook ads for months, BUT… I also like asking “is this restaurant good” and getting a reliable answer. Where’s the middle ground? What are the true costs? Can we be empowered to make progressive changes or is our only option to unplug and walk away from our modern lives? As Kara Swisher has asked – are we users or hostages to these companies? How can we even tell?


Bruce Schneier’s essay “Surveillance Kills Freedom By Killing Experimentation” from The End of Trust (McSweeney’s 54) helps to give real context. What may seem to some as a slippery slope argument at first blush, is a real question about the value that privacy adds to society. Privacy facilitates the freedom to experiment, tinker, and even build a revolution within an existing system. Said another way, fear crowds out creativity – so to the extent that a lack of privacy instills fear, we limit the future of technological and social progress. Here’s a sample:


For social norms to change, people need to deviate from these inherited norms. People need the space to try alternate ways of living without risking arrest or social ostracization. People need to be able to read critiques of those norms without anyone’s knowledge, discuss them without their opinions being recorded, and write about their experiences without their names attached to their words. People need to be able to do things that others find distasteful, or even immoral. The minority needs protection from the tyranny of the majority.


Privacy makes all of this possible. Privacy encourages social progress by giving the few room to experiment free from the watchful eye of the many. Even if you are not personally chilled by ubiquitous surveillance, the society you live in is, and the personal costs are unequivocal.


The needed public debate over these issues requires we’re all educated on this topic. From corporate privacy disclosures sent out by compliance departments to human interactions over text message, none of us are truly “off the grid” anymore. We’re all in this conversation. While serving ads online was the beginning, we have a whole online edifice to reexamine with a modern perspective. 

Take the time to listen to Kara Swisher’s Recode Decode interview or read the pieces linked above and get a sense for what’s going on. As professionals touching multiple industries that seem perennially in flux, privacy, the data that’s collected, and the opportunities and risks present at every turn have massive ramifications.