Whether you’re reading about the latest data-mining class action lawsuit through your Google Glass or relaxing on your front porch waving at your neighbors, you probably know that there’s a big debate in this country about privacy. Some say privacy is important. Some say it’s dead. Some say kids want it, or not. Some say it’s a relatively recent phenomenon whose time, by the way, has passed—a slightly opaque blip in our history as social animals. Others say it’s a human right without which many other rights would be impossible to maintain.
It’s a much-needed discussion—but one in which the tone is often not conducive to persuasion, and therefore progress. If you think concerns about information privacy are overrated and might become an obstacle to the development of useful tools and services, you may hear yourself described as a [Silicon Valley] sociopath or a heartless profiteer. If you believe that privacy is important and deserves protection, you may be called a “privacy hysteric.”
It’s telling that privacy advocates are so often called “hysterics”—a term associated more commonly with women
, and with a surfeit of emotion and lack of reason. (Privacy advocates are also called “fundamentalists” or “paranoid”—again implying belief not based in reason.) And even when such terms are not directly deployed, the tone often suggests them. In a 2012 Cato Institute policy analysis titled “A Reasonable Response to the Privacy ‘Crisis,’
” for example, Larry Downes writes about the “emotional baggage” invoked by the term “privacy,” and advises, “For those who naturally leap first to legislative solutions, it would be better just to fume, debate, attend conferences, blog, and then calm down before it’s too late.” (Apparently debate, like fuming and attending conferences, is just a harmless way to let off steam—as long as it doesn’t lead to such hysteria as class-action lawsuits
or actual attempts at legislation.)
In the year following Edward Snowden’s revelations, the accusations of privacy “hysteria” or “paranoia” seemed to have died down a bit; unfortunately, they might be making a comeback. The summary of a recent GigaOm article
, for example, accuses BuzzFeed of “pumping up the hysteria” in its discussion of ad beacons installed—and quickly removed—in New York.
On the other hand, those who oppose privacy-protecting legislation or who argue that other values or rights might trump privacy sometimes find themselves diagnosed, too–if not as sociopaths
, then at least as belonging on the “autism spectrum”
: disregardful of social norms, unable to empathize with others.
Too often, the terms thrown about by some on both sides in the privacy debate suggest an abdication of the effort to persuade. You can’t reason with hysterics and sociopaths, so there’s no need to try. You just state your truth to those others who think like you do, and who cheer your vehemence.
But even if you’re a privacy advocate, you probably want the benefits derived from collecting and analyzing at least some data sets, under some circumstances; and even if you think concerns about data disclosures are overblown, you still probably don’t disclose everything about yourself to anyone who will listen.
If information is power, privacy is a defensive shell against that power. It is an effort to modulate vulnerability. (The more vulnerable you feel, the more likely you are to understand the value of privacy.) So privacy is an inherent part of all of our lives
; the question is how to deploy it best. In light of new technologies that create new privacy challenges
, and new methodologies that seek to maximize benefits while minimizing harms (e.g. “differential privacy
”), we need to be able to discuss this complicated balancing act —without charged rhetoric making the debate even more difficult.
If you find yourself calling people privacy-related names (or writing headlines or summaries that do that, even when the headlined articles themselves don’t), please rephrase.
Photo by Tom Tolkien
, unmodified, used under a Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode