Privacy is a good thing, right?

Almost everyone agrees with that statement.

Assuming the majority is correct - and privacy is a good thing - you probably have examples from your own law-abiding life in which losing your privacy created a lasting problem for you. Can you tell me a few stories like that?

Probably not.

Okay, now can you give me some examples in which sacrificing your privacy worked to your advantage? I'll bet you can.

Maybe you shared your medical history with your doctor and that allowed him to treat you more effectively.

Maybe you put your personal information on an online dating service and it helped you find the love of your life.

Maybe you showed your past tax returns to your bank and it helped you secure a mortgage to your dream house.

Maybe you were secretly gay or lesbian and it was a huge relief when you came out.

Maybe you installed a device on your car that allows your insurance company to track your driving history in return for lower rates.

Maybe you enjoy sharing your life on Facebook.

Maybe Google tracked your search history and later served up an ad that was exactly what you were looking for.

Maybe your favorite airline gave you a free upgrade because they know you fly with them often.

Maybe you put your work history on LinkedIn and someone offered you a job.

We tend to fear losing our privacy until it's gone. Then we wonder what all the fuss was about. It turns out that the bigger challenge than retaining privacy is getting anyone to care about you at all.

I know, I know: You want to lecture me about how an evil government can use your private information to hurt you. You might even toss in a Hitler reference or two because that helps any argument.

But I would counter that you're describing a situation in which the government has privacy and you don't. I'm not in favor of that situation either. If the government were to operate with complete transparency, not counting some national security secrets, law-abiding citizens would have nothing to fear. The government and the governed would keep each other under control. So don't confuse a problem created by too much privacy (the government's) with one caused by too little privacy.

Let's game out another scenario in which citizens give up privacy and see if that seems better or worse. I'll pick gun registration as my example because it's a hot topic. Suppose that tomorrow you could go online and see which of your neighbors registered their legal guns. What would you do next?

Well, if you don't already own a gun, you probably get one quickly because burglars can see the same information you see. You don't want to be the one unarmed home on the block. And because you're a good citizen, you get a gun safe, maybe trigger locks, and you train every member of the family in proper gun use. Now every home in your neighborhood has a small armory.

My best guess is that in that scenario the burglary rate in the neighborhood goes down. And instead of gun registration leading to government disarmament of the public as many fear, my best guess is that gun ownership would expand. And if the burglary rate goes down as a result, politicians would be happy to take credit.

The studies on gun ownership and crime rates are sketchy in my opinion, so no one can safely predict what might happen if every neighbor had a registered gun. Maybe that would lead to gun duels in the streets, suburban warlords, and sniper attacks on backyard barbecues. But historical patterns suggest it would be more good than bad. I say that because every case I can think of in which adult citizens intelligently gave up privacy in this country turned out well.

I can imagine insurance companies offering lower rates to customers who have passed gun safety programs and/or own gun safes. In the long run, you might have more gun ownership but a higher rate of gun safety. It's hard to know where that nets out.

Here's a story from my personal life in which giving up privacy helped tremendously. For most of my life I harbored an embarrassing secret that I am about to reveal to you: I can't use restrooms if any other human is nearby. For decades I believed I had some sort of mental problem. I was ashamed of my condition and never spoke of it. I continuously made excuses for avoiding situations with inadequate bathroom privacy. The inconvenience of it all was debilitating. Leaving the house for more than an hour was a nightmare because I couldn't be sure I would have access to a bathroom I could use.

Then several years ago, an unexpected thing happened. My older brother went public, website and all, with the same problem. We grew up together and somehow neither of us was aware of the other's situation. I later learned that the condition has a genetic component. It goes by the medical name paruresis, or more commonly shy bladder, and perhaps 5% of the public have it.

My brother gave up his privacy because he thought it would help others. And it has. My own problem diminished by about 75% within a year of learning that other people suffered from the same condition. I started admitting my condition to my friends, only to learn that a surprising number have the same problem. And once I was open about it, I found I could say without embarrassment which bathroom situations work for me and which ones don't. When I let go of my privacy on that topic, it improved my life considerably. With the exception of the Oakland A's stadium restrooms, in which men stand shoulder to shoulder to pee in a trough, I can now use normal public restrooms without much trouble. And all of that happened because my brother gave up his privacy on the topic and I followed his lead.

About 5% of the people reading my story just took a deep breath and felt normal for the first time in their lives. You can thank my brother's lack of privacy for that.

Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +33
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 1, 2013
For the longest time, I've had the same problem Scott has - the shy bladder one, not the 'i enjoy stirring the hornet nest of my blog' one. :)

Eventually, I was in a long-term position where trying to arrange an empty/private bathroom for myself on a regular basis wasn't feasible, and I slowly got over it. Well, maybe i'm still a bit anxious - always thinking in the back of your head that there's going to be someone that just starts yelling "WHO HAS THE SMELLY BUTT IN HERE? OH GOD IT'S MAKING ME GAG!" ... It never happens, it never will happen, but moist robots that we are, there's a lot of programming for irrationality for seemingly no evolutionary reason.

To join in on the ... 'fun'.... of the discussion, there's an easy solution to a gun registry: Make it optional, and run by a private company. It's call it "Gunbook - Facebook for guns!" and everyone will flock to register themselves.
Aug 31, 2013
I'm a huge fan, normally agree with you, but this is one of the few cases where your argument is really really terrible. I suspect that you have just lived a very limited/sheltered sort of life (on purpose, from how you describe yourself) so maybe you really do lack experience in this. But even if you are lacking experience it should be trivial to observe and imagine all the BAD repercussions from lack of privacy.

Of course I had the urge to write a ton more, but I think many people have already commented everything that needs to be said.
+18 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 31, 2013
> you probably have examples from your own law-abiding life
> in which losing your privacy created a lasting problem for you

yes. two words: identity theft.
Aug 31, 2013
Phantom II: [ I chuckle ironically when I hear people say that they don't worry about invasions of privacy because "they have nothing to hide." I reply to them, "Oh, really? You don't? Then you won't mind me putting a camera on you 24/7/365 and watching you take a shower, use the toilet, have sex, or watch 'Dancing With The Stars?'" ]

We already have people doing this. They're called "reality television stars".

Look, if you want to watch me do these things, I can honestly say I don't mind. I can say that because I don't believe that you DO want to watch it. Nor do I believe that you are going to invest your entire life in recording mine this way. And that's the secret: the kind of loss of "privacy" you are talking about is a red herring, because for practical reasons it is impossible to impose on any widespread basis.

You're calling Scott on redefining privacy, but as I've said before, and will again, the conversation here is not really about the dictionary definition of privacy. It's about FREEDOM. People are afraid of others finding out about the weirdness they enjoy because they are afraid of a loss of freedom if that happens -- specifically, the loss of their ability to enjoy that weirdness. As long as that ability is not affected by the publication of the information, the publication doesn't matter.

How could the publication affect the ability? A couple of ways, two personal, one legal. The first personal one is simple embarrassment. You don't want anyone to know you dork off to Asian girls with pigtails, glasses and plaid skirts, to use a suspiciously specific example that I chose completely at random, honest. But you know what? Embarrassment is your own problem to deal with. It's the "spotlight fallacy", where you think everyone is paying attention to everything you do. The truth is, most people don't give a s--- about what you do. Just get over it.

The second personal one is the fear that you will lose status because of the publication. This is the fear that gay people have of coming out: that their boss, for example, will fire them simply BECAUSE they are gay. Or their parents will reject them. The ones which are truly harmful, like losing your job, can be legislated against. Nobody can ensure that a personal relationship won't be affected, but that's true of any situation.

Here's an example. I'm an atheist, and I often repost things in Facebook from atheism sites. I have friends -- people who are both actual, real-life friends, and also "friends" in the FB sense -- who are strongly religious, and I fear that these postings will affect our friendship. I worry that they will stop inviting me to parties at their house because my very vocal derision of religious beliefs will offend them. And it might happen. But hey, their very vocal *affirmation* of religious beliefs offends me, and I haven't stopped inviting them over to my house. If they decide to do that, then, well, f--- 'em.

The third reason is legal: you are afraid that the government is going to do something to you if they find out what your weirdness is. THIS, and only this, is a good argument against publication of your personal information. The government can (and has) discriminate and terrorize individuals for their weirdness. This is where the transparency comes in: in a democracy, as long as the government cannot operate in secrecy, their actions are going to have to reflect the majority's opinions.
Aug 31, 2013
This is essentially what I've been saying in the comments here all along: people confuse privacy with freedom, and think that a loss of one corresponds to a loss of the other. Which is true IF the government can itself operate in secrecy -- but they can't anymore, not really.

It's all about data; generate enough of it and some is going to leak out despite your best efforts.
-8 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 31, 2013
The volume of data collected by the NSA makes it impossible for them to know anything about anybody that hasn't been specifically targeted for investigation. Innocent people who have interactions with the target will have a privacy breech, but nothing will come of it.

Key words will get flagged, possibly a human will review it.
But again, nothing will come of it.

If someone Googles pressure cooker and backpack, the chances of anyone reviewing it are small. To many people are searching for things like that, it falls outside of the scope of organizational capacity to pursue it.

If anyone missed the urban legend earlier, the above example resulted in a (local) police visit because the IT department of a fired employee got spooked. Understandable and prudent for the locals to check it out. Something like that is so far below the NSA radar it's a waste of time to discuss it seriously.

All of the non-NSA involved discussion of privacy resulting in suicide, firings are different topics in my mind.

When I say that the NSA can collect every bit of data on me and never even know I exist, that's a lot more rational than believing we'll all be fired and commit suicide.

I see abuse of the data as a different topic also.
That abuse if/when it happens, would be targeted abuse, big news stories, congressional bluster etc.

My privacy isn't violated by someone collecting data on me that's never seen by the collector or anyone else. If that saves lives and prevents the next 911, I'm in favor of it.
+16 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 31, 2013
Anecdotal evidence is the weakest form of evidence according to a medieval logical maxim. Like any argument based on induction from individual cases to a general rule, its conclusions can be overturned by a single counter instance. For example, the classic example is the premise that all swans are white. Since the discovery of black swans in Australia, this premise has been false. You can not conclude that because a bird is a swan, that it will be white. Many swans are now known to be black. Inductive evidence proved that swans were always primarily white for thousands of years, and then poof! The truth value of this statement disappeared with the discovery of one black swan.

There are many cases where sharing personal or private information with one person or a group of people is advantageous. I do not deny that premise. But I do deny the idea that it is trivial to lose your privacy.

Adams says that gays are relieved to come out of the closet. This may be true when it is voluntary and planned carefully. It may even be true when it occurs as a personal disaster if the gay person makes a come back as well as come out by realizing that many friends and family members knew all along and support him or her, if the person's coworkers don't make a fuss, and so forth.

Conversely, outing somebody can destroy their life, their livelihood, their community of supporting family members and friends, and so forth.

You don't have to live in a country where gays are systematically murdered or assaulted, or one where a family will disown or even kill you for dishonouring them by "coming out" or being "outed".

How many sexual situatons have resulted in death and mayhem when revealed? Remember the young student who committed suicide when his roommate put a film clip of him and an older man having sex in his dorm room up on the web for the whole world to see? What of the young Nova Scotia girl who was hounded to suicide by bullies? Should she have had some privacy to protect her online?

What about all the criminals arrested for stupid violations of their own privacy by boasting of crimes or even filming them and posting them on Facebook? Everybody in the world sees your posts to "social media" or could. What of all the people fired because of their online activity?

If you work for a bottling company and are seen "liking" their competitors product or drinking it in a film clip or a photo some near stranger posts of you in a bar, you may lose your job and a lot more because you have zero privacy from being photographed, filmed, quoted, or read in the various forms of web-ready media. And it needn't be your fault or your stupidity to blame--everybody is living i a sea of cameras today. There are 4,500,000 video cameras watching the British population and 2,500,000 in London alone. On average, every person appears on one of them several times a day.

I fear corporations more than governments because they have fewer constraints and more reasons to betray your trust. They are actively selling your personal data to each other with very little consumer knowledge or accountability to the people involved. A bad review of a product can involve you in some very costly and serious litgation or harrasment, while a bad credit rating can ruin you and your family.

Privacy is hard to think about until it is gone. But a lack of privacy makes you a target for not only the police, governments (not necessarily your own), corporations, and every crank, looney, freak, monster, troll, a-hole, and idiot on Earth. EVERY ONE.

Two may keep a secret if one doesn't tell. But in the Brave New World of universal surveillance of one by all, it may no longer be possible for one to keep a secret, even one vital to their health, safety, freedom, happiness, and rights as a human being and as a citizen.

Please don't trivialize this issue.
Aug 31, 2013
[If you aren't willing to do that, what does it say about you?
Would you be willing to tell the next set of 911 victims your convictions?]
It says that I value the freedom and liberty that this country was founded on. Even if corruption and bureaucratic bloat have altered our government drastically, this does not change my desire to pursue and fight for the original principles. The Revolution was sparked because of (here I go painting in broad strokes, please don't nit-pick the details) of the taxation without representation. In other words the crown was making decisions from afar without allowing the colonies a voice. Reaching into their lives and livelihood very much like our government and large !$%*!$%* taking our privacy.
The Founding Fathers and all the revolutionary history may not seem directly related. Many, if not most, people don't really grasp what happened then and that it would be very difficult to see it happening today. The early revolutionist were committing to principles and values that meant something. Meant something to human beings in a civil society. Most people today are concerned about the economy, jobs, privacy, military actions and homosexual controversy but, only as it does or does not affects them.
Would I be willing to tell my convictions to the next set of 911 victims? Yes, but not to be cruel. I would mourn the loss of any person but the tragedy of a given situation does not mean we change our policy to fit that moment. It is wrong to let emotion dictate policy. Even if it was me or my family that were victims, it would not change my views. Would I be happy? No, I'd mourn their loss. But, I would not let myself be fooled into thinking that more intrusive government would fix or prevent attacks.
Aug 31, 2013
It's one thing when people voluntarily give up some privacy. It's a completely different issue when we aren't given any choice.

We discuss our medical records with our doctor so we can get treatment. And if the doctor discusses our personal details with another doctor in order to improve our treatment than that is acceptable. But if the doctor discloses our personal information to anyone else, that is unacceptable. They should not (for example) be allowed to tell our employer, or our insurance company, about our medical problems unless we give them explicit permission.

We give our income and other personal information to the IRS. We give up some privacy because we want the government services and understand that to provide them, the government needs to collect tax revenue. But the IRS can't sell our information to private corporations, and they shouldn't be allowed to share it with other government departments (without a warrant).

Your brother voluntarily gave up some privacy because he thought it would help people. Now imagine if someone told their doctor about their "shy bladder" and that doctor immediately told that person's employer. And the employer decided they couldn't setup private bathrooms for everyone, so they just fired the person. Has this lack of privacy helped them?
Aug 31, 2013
To clarify my last statement, privacy is an option you have which you can give up at any time when it suits your own interests. I don't think it should be taken from you though.
Aug 31, 2013
As I see it, privacy is an option. But I think it goes beyond secrecy which is what I believe most assume is the only thing it is. Basically privacy is also about having matters you can conduct privately without any interference from others.

Let's say I have a hobby of building model cars and airplanes. Now imagine if every thing I did to build the car or plane went on facebook, twitter, etc. Next thing I know there's 1,000 know it alls telling me I'm doing it wrong, 100 people telling me they hate the paint job, and 15 trolls telling me to get a real hobby. Then if I have a kid, he just got expelled from his school because it was a military model and anything related to guns or war is banned in school and he linked to it because I let the bugger help from time to time. All I was trying to do was relax and all the fun and joy just went out of the project.

Time to cut to the "and it's gone" south park meme.

As I see it, privacy is as much about being independent and keeping busybodies away as it is about having personal info not being disclosed when you don't want it to be. To me, privacy is also about having your own individual life where you don't have to get everyone's approval to do anything which is your own personal business.
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 31, 2013
Scott, I am surprised by your level of naivety.
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 31, 2013
You're missing something. In all your situations we selectively revealed a tiny bit of our private information, the part that would be to our advantage.

That's very different than publishing all our private information (including the bad stuff!) for anybody to see.

Some people have worse things than not being able to pee in public. Stuff that *really is* embarrassing and would stop them from getting dates. Publishing that information online before anybody gets to meet them in person and find out what they're really like could lead to a very lonely life.
Aug 31, 2013
I found girlfriend on dating site. We broke up after half a year, because she found out how much a miserable loner I really am. But that was great half year, I don't regret it. If I told her that right away, we wouldn't be dating. So, I gained by sacrificing carefully selected parts of my privacy. Sacrificing it all would take me nowhere.

I bet gay people who don't come out of the closet also do this for a reason. So, this is a bad example.

And in case of buying guns because of neighbourhood pressure, I believe people who would gain most of this situation would be gun manufacturers. Knowing, how dumb my neighbours are, I wouldn't feel safer, no matter how many guns I had.
Aug 31, 2013

You called bull**** on me publicly and I made you eat your own words, I hope that bull*** was tasty.

You said "It had nothing to do with the government knowing what everyone Googles."

Yes...I said that too. Did you actually read what I wrote, or is this a last-word sort of obsession you have?

"People will read your example and believe it happened as a result of NSA spying on everything we Google. That's NOT what happened."

So, let's see... you misinterpreted something I said, and yet seem to be getting confused and/or upset about your misinterpretation.

Holy cow! I just had major insight as to what Scott Adams must feel like on a regular basis!!!! ;-)
Aug 31, 2013
Just read on comment, regarding 9/11.

It was 3000 dead people, give or take.

That is not a monumental disaster, even if it was horrible.

Fight stairs instead, they kill more than that every year...
Aug 31, 2013
There are a lot of ex-convicts who would greatly disagree about the right to privacy.

Seriously, a lot of people, having already served their sentence get beaten to a pulp or just fully shut out of society.

Sexual perversions which are deemed unacceptable even if they are harmful can lose you your job and the respect of fellow man, even if they are harmless.

Just analysing your behaviour from a perspective of "This will be registered" greatly alters your tendency to express it, that is really one of the main arguments against it, that you need to keep a thing FULLY private or TOTALLY open, this is not a good thing to be binary.

Having control of exactly who you tell confidential things is a fundamental necessary to being able to trust.
Aug 30, 2013
Out here they recently arrested a schoolteacher who had huge stores of child !$%*!$%*!$% on his computer.

Do I want privacy on my computer? Yes. Do I want guys like that caught and removed from the classroom? Also yes.

The obvious solution is to profile everybody who isn't precisely like me and the people who absolutely agree with me. For example: Anybody who works in education or any other field that delivers a public benefit is obviously up to no good; either that or they never read Ayn Rand. The persecution of non-Rand readers is a trifling cost to pay for security, and they probably deserve it for other reasons anyway.

That's a pretty clear standard for what's absolutely necessary and what's tyrannical harassment.
Aug 30, 2013
I'd tell you why I like my privacy, but, umm, well, you know... it's private.

If you are simply saying many of our embarrassing little secrets are really better for everyone when shared, I'll agree with you. This is most likely the case. However, I reserve the right to make this decision on my own behalf for each and every of my little secrets, and I champion the right of everyone else to do the same.

I know you were really questioning why we seem to hold privacy so dear in an environment where privacy is mostly an illusion and is often detrimental, and using gun registration as an example, rather than suggesting that privacy be abandoned as a matter of law, but it's hard to disengage the concept of abandoning privacy on a large scale as a matter of individual choice due to shifting social norms from abandoning privacy as a matter of legal policy. Unless you spell it out. Like I just did.

You're welcome.
-8 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
Am I the only one who thought Scott's blog today was about everyone being willing to sacrifice a bit of personal privacy in the hope that the next 911 could be avoided?

If you aren't willing to do that, what does it say about you?
Would you be willing to tell the next set of 911 victims your convictions?

And how does that topic translate into anyone posting their taxes online, or fear mongering a new urban legend that if you Google something, the cops will know and care.

As ordinary citizens, don't we need to get over ourselves?
The NSA can collect everything about me and will still never know I exist.
They aren't coming to my...oh crap, the doorbell just rang. I'll fi
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog