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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.

 
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0 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
@esslinger,
Your example wasn't valid because the IT department of the company that fired him resulted in the police showing up. It had nothing to do with the government knowing what everyone Googles.

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

Without realizing it, you're spawning an urban legend.
 
 
Aug 30, 2013
@ Dilbro:
"The IT department of the husband's former employment got spooked because the husband had been fired and they discovered he was Googling the possibility of blowing them up."

Where on earth are you reading that? Oh, right, you're speculating. Much like that former employer in the story. If I were to look at all the searches you've run during the last week I guarantee I could take any two terms out of context and make you seem like a saint or a demon, depending on my mood and level of paranoia.

This is like the quote often attributed to Cardinal Richelieu: "If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him."

The original point of my post was not about the questionable reach of Big Brother. It's not about government per se. It's about the risk of unfettered access to unlimited personal information being misused out of context by people, resulting in tiny annoyances like pop-up ads you don't like to the feds possibly kicking in your door. And all of my examples are true.

Many commenters have pointed out that there is no such thing as true privacy anymore in our modern information age. This might be true, but there are ways to limit and mitigate what you advertise about yourself. However, it does take effort. For example, the guy in the news story was an idiot for googling ANYTHING personal on his work computer. Let that be the lesson - no matter how innocent the search, someone can demonize it. Imagine if my church choir found out that I googled Smurf Costumes, Neil Patrick Harris, and Gerbils in the same week.

p.s. - ask Scott how he feels about ideas being taken out of context :-)
 
 
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
@joethewebmaster,
Small hog is a different issue, nothing to do with being paruretic.
Approximately 10% of paruretics are women.
As far as I'm aware, they aren't concerned with the size of their hog.

Here's a partial list of paruretics I personally know.
Gay, straight, male, female, 6 foot 4, 5 foot 5, cops, firemen, military, sensitive, macho, outgoing, introverted, shy, life of the party, CEOs...the list goes on.

Within the paruretic community, there's typically surprise that literally anybody can be paruretic.
 
 
Aug 30, 2013
Hmm makes me wonder if there is any correlation between paruresis and having an unusually small "member" or in the least a "member" inferiority complex? Never had a problem of such as I walk in thinking... If the guy next to me decides to take a peek it's his fault as he'll spend the rest of his life never feeling like a real man again... :)
 
 
Aug 30, 2013
I am still waiting for you health and tax history to be published. Not too mention that governments all over the world are going in the opposite direction, i.e. making more and more public information secret.

You made an interesting point about guns and crime. Most countries have strict gun control whereas gun control in the US is pretty lax. So it makes sense that crime is higher in let's say Japan or Germany than in the US, right?

Finally there is a difference between forced privacy and voluntary privacy. For example you might not want to come out as a gay until you feel it is safe to do so. Or in the Middle East people don't really want their real name associated with their twitter messages around protests.
 
 
Aug 30, 2013
"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."

Not true Scott. We can safely predict what would happen. Its called Switzerland.
 
 
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
@essinger:

The LOCAL police know what you're Googling and come to your house?
What's that smell like to you?

"The Suffolk County Police Department said it sent detectives to her East Meadow home Wednesday after a Bay Shore-based computer company reported suspicious computer searches by a “recently released” employee."

The IT department of the husband's former employment got spooked because the husband had been fired and they discovered he was Googling the possibility of blowing them up. They called the cops.

That's no where near to big brother peeking into your underwear drawer.
And personally, it sounds like it was prudent of the employer and the police to investigate.
 
 
Aug 30, 2013
I had shy bladder something fierce for a good part of my life.

When our daughter started walking 12 or 13 years, she started following me into the bathroom and hanging on my pant leg. This only lasted a year or so, but oddly enough, that somehow pretty much cured me. The other trick I learned was that if I could go at all it helps to make as loud a splashing noise as the urinal will allow - whiz proudly! I do really well now as long as there's not a crowd jostling in a tight rest room elbow to elbow with lines out the door.

Dilbro, I'll admit that other thing too - lots of practice seems to help a lot.
 
 
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
The point is, if you wish to give up some, or all of your privacy that is your choice, someone or some entity should not be making that choice for you.
 
 
Aug 30, 2013
Giving up your privacy willingly and having it invaded are two different situations. When you give it up, you have some notion of the benefit and risks and you can control the information you release and who you release it to. When it is invaded, when information about you is essentially taken without your knowledge, the benefits are less clear (more abstract at the very least) and the risks are higher because you don't even know you should mitigate them.

The idea of equal transparency between government and citizens is a nice thought, but it's a fantasy argument.
 
 
Aug 30, 2013
@Dilbro

Here you go, buddy!

http://pix11.com/2013/08/02/familys-internet-search-of-pressure-cooker-and-backpack-prompt-visit-from-the-feds/

p.s. - it was the police department, not the FBI specifically. I was referencing the initial point from memory.
 
 
Aug 30, 2013
Post your full address and telephone number here Scott. How long would it take before you regret giving up that bit of privacy?
 
 
-5 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
@befuddled: "Scott, maybe you could make another 5% of your audience feel normal for the first time in their lives by telling us how often you m a s t u r b a t e and what you think about while you're doing it. Come on, give up some of your privacy to benefit others."

NEWS FLASH!!!
Only 5% of Dilbert Blog readers wank!

If a large number of the audience were wanks, and their lives suffered from what they regarded as a shameful and horribly embarrassing act, I'd be willing to admit I do it all the time and that it's universally practiced. Nothing to be ashamed of.

 
 
-5 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
In today's world, privacy is an illusion like free will.

Anything the government WANTS to know about you, it already knows or will find out.

The government will know I like to wear ladies clothes. That's my sacrifice for them potentially stopping a major terrorist attack.
 
 
Aug 30, 2013
In other words, misery loves company, especially when it's entirely in your head?
 
 
Aug 30, 2013
Also, it's nice to be able to protect one's privacy by using fictional user names when commenting on blog posts. Otherwise, your comments might be regarded as biased, especially if you're semi-famous and the blog post revealed the author's less-than-completely-positive options about you.
 
 
+22 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
I don't buy your argument about how being a registered gun owner would lower your burglary rate. Guns are something burglars love to steal. They have a high resale value for their size and weight, criminals have a ready market for them, and most convicted felons can't obtain them legally.

So the bad guys find your house on the public gun registry, wait until your public(!) calendar says you're on vacation, and clean out your house then. Still want to give up all that privacy?
 
 
Aug 30, 2013
Scott, maybe you could make another 5% of your audience feel normal for the first time in their lives by telling us how often you m a s t u r b a t e and what you think about while you're doing it. Come on, give up some of your privacy to benefit others.
 
 
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
OK, Scott, you made your examples bad on purpose. Coming out as a good thing? In most of the world, including the US, coming out generally earns you a whole crapload orf problems and prejudice. It can certainly be good for a minority, but most people feel they have to hide for a reason.

It's also the *option* of revealing your personal information that makes it so powerfully good. The government snooping through everything I do is only going to be negative; my doctor being able to treat me is only going to be positive. Getting to choose the latter without the former is great.
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
@esslinger: "Maybe you googled “pressure cooker” the same week your spouse googled “backpacks” and the FBI came to your house and interrogated you, and now your neighbors shun you."

I'm calling bull**** on that.
I seriously doubt that some random family had that happen to them.
But please feel free to provide a link to the story where Snopes.com won't agree with me.
 
 
 
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