How Privacy Became a Commodity for the Rich and Powerful

“NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE”

By Amanda Hess

“Now that our privacy is worth something, every side of it is being monetized.

We can either trade it for cheap services or shell out cash to protect it. It is increasingly seen not as a right but as a luxury good.

When Congress recently voted to allow internet service providers to sell user data without users’ explicit consent, talk emerged of premium products that people could pay for to protect their browsing habits from sale. And if they couldn’t afford it? As one congressman told a concerned constituent, “Nobody’s got to use the internet.” Practically, though, everybody’s got to. Tech companies have laid claim to the public square: All of a sudden, we use Facebook to support candidates, organize protests and pose questions in debates. We’re essentially paying a data tax for participating in democracy.

The smartphone is an intimate device; we stare rapt into its bright light and stroke its smooth glass to coax out information and connect with others. It seems designed to help us achieve Westin’s functions of privacy, to enable emotional release and moments of passive reflection. We cradle it in bed, at dinner, on the toilet. Its pop-up privacy policies are annoying speed bumps in the otherwise instantaneous conjuring of desires. It feels like a private experience, when really it is everything but. How often have you shielded the contents of your screen from a stranger on the subway, or the partner next to you in bed, only to offer up your secrets to the data firm tracking everything you do?

The surveillance economy works on such information asymmetry: Data-mining companies know everything about us, but we know very little about what they know. And just as “privacy” has grown into an anxious buzzword, the powerful have co-opted it in order to maintain control over others and evade accountability. As we bargain away the amount of privacy that an ordinary person expects, we’ve also watched businesses and government figures grow ever more indignant about their own need to be left alone. Companies mandate nondisclosure agreements and demand out-of-court arbitration to better conceal their business practices. In 2013, Facebook revoked users’ ability to remain unsearchable on the site; meanwhile, its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, was buying up four houses surrounding his Palo Alto home to preserve his own privacy. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, has defended President Trump’s secretive meetings at his personal golf clubs, saying he is “entitled to a bit of privacy,” and the administration has cut off public access to White House visitor logs, citingsecurity risks and “privacy concerns.” When The New York Times reported that the president takes counsel from the Fox News host Sean Hannity, Hannity indignantly tweeted that his conversations were “PRIVATE.”

We’ve arrived at a place where public institutions and figures can be precious about their privacy in ways we’re continually deciding individual people can’t. Stepping into the White House is now considered more private than that weird rash you Googled. It’s a cynical inversion of the old association between private life and the lower class: These days, only the powerful can demand privacy.”

About the Author:

Amanda Hess is a David Carr Fellow at the New York Times. She writes about internet culture for the Arts section and contributes regularly to the New York Times Magazine.

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