Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear

Here’s the thing about privacy… what happens when you lose it?

If a big company gets hold of “your data” what do they do with it? They try to make money from it. Usually this just means more tailored advertising and on-selling of your data to other firms. Those firms, in turn, then typically… refine their advertising.

If a government gets hold of your data, what are they going to do? Well, they’re going to see if that data makes life easier for them. Governments don’t like spending money, they don’t like crimes, they don’t like not getting money they should be and they don’t like… actually, this is pretty much it.

So if you’re browsing bomb websites, have been reading about terrorist tactics and are a member of a forum called “Revive the IRA”? You’re probably a problem for the government. You have something to hide that the government plausibly cares about.

What if what you’re hiding is that you’re having an affair with your next door neighbour, despite both of your being married and everyone involved being 29? Okay… why does the government care about any of that? It doesn’t affect their tax take, no crimes are involved and it doesn’t cost them money.

It’s also possible that the government might sell your data. After all, it’s money, right?

(The government is much less likely to sell your data to a terrorist organisation, though. After all, terrorists… cost them money.)

Hmm… why do we care about privacy if this is all that is rationally likely?

Well, it’s not, right?

There are two major aspects of privacy violations which are missing here:

  • personal-scale breaches, and
  • “mind-control”.

Apparently some people think it’s a clever response to “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” to challenge people to post their passwords online. That’s just absurd.

Our 29 year old nymphomaniacs (because, obviously, if you have an affair that makes you a nympho) have a really obvious reason to not give up their passwords. They’re having an affair! They’re not in open relationships. They stand to suffer from people they know’s knowing about their extra-marital consensual fun. How people perceive them, how they live their lives at a fundamental level, will change. But in a way that just doesn’t happen when they receive different advertising.

Now, it’s honest to point out that how people behave in and out of affairs differs. We might imagine these couples are trying for babies (or one of them, let’s not be too heteronormative with our hypothetical). We might also imagine Durex buying their data and tailoring them some condom ads. Spousey ain’t goin’ to be happy. You know what I mean?

This already happens. Or we believe it does, anyway. (In politics, that’s the same thing.)

I remember in Business 101 or 102 (maybe Infosys 110) being told about a dad who started getting pregnancy related advertising. He goes down to the local supermarket or whatever it was and the manager says to him, “Look, mate, we’re marketing formula to you, because we’ve noticed you’re interested in yadda yadda yadda.” At this point, dad remembers teenaged daughters sometimes use customer loyalty cards…

But look at what’s happening here… it’s not the advertising which is the issue. The privacy breach only matters at the personal scale. The inability to tailor who you want to be, to people who know you. It’s the personal level betrayal that gets people up in arms.

The idea of giving up your passwords is also non-comparable because of the identity theft elements. If you knew my password and usernames, you could do stuff that really affects me in real life. It’s not at all like knowing everything that I post online. In that case, you just get a less tailored version of me.

Hmm… we should probably clarify that there are different kinds of data. And that how it’s revealed matters too.

I mean, Jennifer Lawrence would have just as much right to feel violated by some random government or industry analyst seeing her nude selfies as she did when they were leaked publicly. In some sense, it doesn’t matter how many see this kind of data, even one person outside the target audience is a gross personal violation.

On the other hand, if it turned out that Jennifer Lawrence was a hardcore member of r/TheDonald, it doesn’t really matter if some random spook or advertiser sees this. Unless I’ve wildly misunderstood r/TheDonald and its actually some terrorist recruitment website. In that case, the spook would care. But if this information became widely available? Woah, now that would be a problem for Lawrence’s personal brand.

(Taylor Swift would be a better example here. While she doesn’t have a big political profile in the way that Lawrence does… or even “Israel” Lorde does… Swift’s fanbase probably would have a negative financial reaction to any reveal that Taylor Swift was an unironic Trumpist.)

Actually, it’s still a personal level betrayal with even the small scale r/TheDonald example. After all, it’s a secret for a reason. A personal reason. But I’d imagine unauthorised dispersal of nude images concerns most people more than unauthorised dispersal of public beliefs… when both happen to the same small group of strangers.

Wait, what if the government analyst knows you? What if the market researches went to school with you? Um… bad luck, I guess?

Whatever your views here, hopefully you get the idea that normally we’re talking about behavioural information. That we don’t take “your data” to include nude selfies or passwords. That we really prefer to talk about how our digital lives/behaviour give insights into our deeper beings.

(Obviously we can make inferences from nude selfies. For example, it might be useful to advertise phones with superior privacy settings to people who are into sexting. I guess I’m saying, the lines are burred… no songs were referenced in the making of this digression.)

It’s this notion of deeper beings that represents why there is a “mind control” angle here.

By mind control I don’t mean literal mind control. I mean, I’ve seen the SpongeBob Movie, I know it would be a useful component of the “marketer’s toolbox”, but mind control is a pipe dream. Wait, sorry, I mean, science fiction. (Just like subliminal messaging, amirite!? Seriously, though, both are complete bollocks.)

The kind of mind control we’re talking about here is more like nudging. The idea that our behaviour can be shaped by third parties.

Now, I’m the wrong person to talk to about this. After all, I believe this happens anyway. It is a completely inescapable facet of life. To me we are conditional agents. We are conditionally sovereign/us. Adding more to this isn’t changing anything. The use of our data to get to us is no different to anything that would happen naturally. It is what happens naturally.

On the other hand, lots of people believe that things work differently. If this is you, you’re wrong. But I understand where you’re coming from.

It’s an attractive lie, this notion that I’m me and it’s me that I am. You’re you: it’s you who’s you. And so on. All very reassuring. Very existentially comforting. If bollocks. But from this point of view? Yeah, nudging is terrifying. Even in incentivising certain behaviours is pretty scary.

(One of my friends doesn’t think the government should manipulate taxes and subsidies etc. to incentivise socially optimal behaviours. I don’t know if this is his reasoning, but my point is that this reasoning agrees with him.)

It’s not just the government that might do this. Here’s an illustration of a moralising automated(?) pizza ordering service. (Infosys 110 strikes again! Wait, it’s meant to be irrelevant to real life.)

The Cambridge Analytica Scandal is about this kind of problem.

Well, obviously, the Scandal is such a big deal because there are ethical and legal concerns. The data they acquired was meant to be used in one way, be gathered from some people and destroyed at some point. As far as we can tell, none of that has turned out to be true. But what the data was being used for? Now, that’s the mind control angle.

Look, I’ve got a big problem with a foreign company… any company really… coming over to an election and using its marketing techniques to try and achieve outcomes it wants. This isn’t the role of the firm in society. It is… not natural (*yurgh*). It’s not an extension of ordinary life, nor something we should see as being so.

What happens is Apple’s selling itself as a firm about privacy (hmm) puts privacy in my head makes me think about the issue and then I synthesis that into a political stance. And this synthesis is created through a myriad of experiences. This is not the same as Apple creating a marketing campaign selling the idea the government should’t unlock its phones. If Apple wants to do that, it can become a group like Family First or the Catholic Church.

To be honest, all political advertising is pretty suspect. This hypothetical example is basically as good as it gets. After all, it’s focussed on a specific policy or philosophical position. It’s not an attempt to invalidate the legitimacy of certain political outcomes set to the background of Eminem music.

In economics, you eventually realise (get told) that the reason we have all our crazy assumptions is that we often want to model what would happen in, forgive me, a better world. The model doesn’t work well in the real world as a description, but the conceit helps us do a lot of good in that world anyway. I think something similar applies here.

If we allow ourselves the conceit that we’re interpreters of information, active synthesists, we gain insight into the rights and wrongs involved. In principle, people should be allowed to be themselves. If we allow things that get in the way of that? Well, that’s a problem. If people don’t choose to be themselves either way? Well, that’s what we wanted… people making choices.

When it comes to the issue of privacy… I’m all for it. I just don’t see why we act like privacy to faceless organisations is at all similar to privacy among friends. It’s not. We don’t have anything to hide if we don’t have anything the observer cares about. That’s usually not the case on the personal scale. But it usually is the case above that level.

Knowing who has our data, why they have it and what they can do with it matters. In fact, it matters a lot more than their having it. We need to focus on privacy laws which reflect these facets. We need to expose the data economy and the data world. Not to destroy it, but too make sure it functions properly. Market failure is, after all, the norm.

Our data can hurt us. It would suck if Facebook spends most of its time selling my data to Al-Qaeda or the French government. It would suck if Facebook’s letting people I’m keeping out of the loop see stuff. But if it’s our governments that we’re scared of, privacy ought to be the least of our worries… there’s something much worse going on.

I’m not sure about you, but I only try and step on ants if they’re harming me.

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