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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+13 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
"Maybe Google tracked your search history and later served up an ad that was exactly what you were looking for"

Does that really happen to anyone? When I look at the ads that Google and Facebook serve to me I always wonder why companies waste their advertising budgets on social media when the so-called "targeted" ads fly so wide of the mark that would interest me.

Amazon is the worst of all. They seem to use an algorithm that works by deciding that if I buy a thing, then I will want to buy more of the same thing. Here's a clue Amazon: after a buy a DVD from you, the chances that I will want to buy another copy of the same DVD are really very, very small.
Aug 30, 2013
I wrote a long, thoughtful post advocating privacy but in the spirit of Scott's post I'm going to contradict that somewhat with a short, thoughtful post.

Does the public have a right to know that Anthony Weiner is what he is?

What he is, is probably not abnormal in the circles of power politicians float in but it seems to me that the public knowing who their politicians really are might have some power to change who their politicians are. And I see that as a good thing.

I guess if you like that thought then maybe read my long post. Otherwise not.
Aug 30, 2013
Once again (oh, Lordee, save me) you are trying to win a debate by redefining the term about which you are debating.

Let us reason together. Here's the dictionary definition of privacy: "The state of being free from intrusion or disturbance in one's private life or affairs."

Now, let's look at the Adams definition of privacy: "The personal decision to reveal something that you're embarrassed about in the hopes of having some good come of it."

Most people would notice that those two definitions are quite different. But here's the key: only one of them is the real definition of the word. And it's not Scott's.

Where you go wrong in a massive way is when you assume that you've given up your privacy because you have revealed something to others that you are embarrassed about. That's not giving up privacy. If I, on the other hand, were to have found out that you weren't able to pee in public and posted it on Facebook, THAT would have been an invasion of your privacy.

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?'"

I have yet to have anyone honestly say that, yes, that's OK with them. Why not? Because they really do value their privacy, and understand what that term really means. Just because I, or you, will allow others to know some things about us that may be personal, doesn't mean that we give up the right to keep those things private should we choose to.

Which just gave me the idea for your next book, Scott. How about "The Dilbert Dictionary," wherein you can redefine all the terms that give you such trouble. Then, when you write a blog post like this, we'd be able to understand in advance where you're coming from.

And I don't even want 10% of the profits for that idea. It would invade my privacy too much.

Aug 30, 2013
Very good piece and I like how you break down the problem and show how maximum privacy isn't always desirable. There are people who would argue about privacy as a bumper sticker issue and who are single issue voters about it. But that view is simplistic. And frankly I think those who go to those extremes are dealing with paranoid personality issues or antisocial issues or they have something to hide. My feeling about privacy is that you should have the option to be private if you choose to be. I have issues with privacy when you don't have control over private or sensitive information and have a legitimate reason to have control. There are many examples where I believe you should have personal ownership and access privilege to your own data. Email, medical records, private mail ...

... and for that matter an anonymous identity on a public blog. I really am named James and I am grumpy. I'm a regular guy and in my spare time I read a lot and write a little. And that's all anyone needs to know.

Anonymity has uses and the Founders of the United States used it extensively when they wrote.

But openness has many good outcomes too and I think most people would be happier if they were more open. For some people this is a challenge - and it was for me. But I met the love of my life on Facebook precisely because I chose to be open and inclusive rather than private and conspiratorial. So I am a fan of being open. It's how you make friends and build relationships and it could build a solid foundation for how you interact with the world around you.

Having said that, I am deeply offended that the NSA is apparently logging and indexing and archiving my private conversations. My personal relationships are none of their damn business - none of the business of anyone within 1,000 miles of Washington DC - and they shouldn't be doing it.

The issue I have with that isn't about the utility of openness - it's about having the choice of being open or private. I also somehow don't doubt that any stupid thing you ever did in the new wonderful world of ubiquitous surveillance is going to be leaked. Whether that's your medical records and something stupid you did at <Insert Overly Specific Geographical Name> University as a frat boy or your emails to an ex girlfriend when you were at a low point in your life ... and this will find its way into the public domain whenever you run against a well-connected party candidate for PTA chairmanship or whatever.

You should have control of your data. Period.

One of the reasons is my favorite quote from Kurt Vonnegut. "Real horror is waking up one day and realizing the people you went to high school with are running the country."

Control of your data will at least ensure a measure of dignity and privacy when bad people are running things.

So I love your article because it points out the benefits of being open - but that isn't what the privacy debate is about. The debate is about ownership and about choice and control. And a nurse at the local hospital shouldn't be able to type ID: Nurse Password: Nurse and get full access to medical records of any patient who's ever been admitted (and yes, these were the ID and passwords when I trained for <insert degree I don't want to tell you about> at <insert school with specific geographic information in the name>.

I write this in good humor. But this privacy stuff is serious.
+8 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
If citizens of the U.S. are willing to sacrifice some of their privacy, the chance of terrorist attack will decrease a bit.

But as one of those citizens, the chances of me being the victim of a terrorist attack are so small as to be non-existent.

So in effect, my loss of privacy would be to help people I don't know and have never met.
There's nothing in it for me.

So as a self-centered, selfish a******, I'm opposed to any loss of my personal privacy.
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
Clearly, we are all fussy about privacy in regards to a wide variety of subjects.

Congrats on dealing with one of yours, though I am left wondering if you peeled back that onion psychologically back to its core, at what caused this phobia *and maybe a voice loss thing* to you and your brother. Some *rare medical conditions* could be actually be psychosomatic? A question worth asking, maybe.

I would still prefer to keep my own information reasonably private, thanks.
+16 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
I like this game. Let me play:

Maybe you told your doctor you were suffering from anxiety and the police showed up and seized your legally owned firearms.

Maybe you put your personal info on a dating service and now fear a stalker that the police won’t stop.

Maybe you were gay or lesbian and you lost your job when your religious nutcase boss found out.

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.

All of these have actually happened, by the way, just not to me personally. I'm not saying we should all live in secretive fear of authorities and each other, but with the ubiquity of modern personal information, cameras etc., we should absolutely be reluctant to advertise too much about ourselves. Personally, I want to know the Return on Investment before I give out personal info.
+24 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
The argument that most issues of privacy are unimportant misses the point. Yes, most people have nothing to hide, and don't have anything to be ashamed about. And often benefit by *voluntarily* sharing their data.

But privacy is very important at the margins/fringes, just like freedom of expression. You probably may want in some areas or would have wanted at some times to keep private your support for gay marriage or drug legalization, for example. Or keep your interest in !$%*!$%*!$% to yourself.

The problem is that privacy cannot be turned on and off at just the right junctures or restricted just to those areas that you deem OK. It has to be protected across the board. Again just like freedom of expression. Most people have nothing controversial or cutting edge to say. But we need to keep the protections so broad that we don't stifle the new voices that need to be heard.
Aug 30, 2013
I have a secret fear of giving up my privacy. There -- I've said it.

I feel much better now!

+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
HIPAA is certainly over the top. People who should have the info have trouble getting it. The government keeps adding to the regulations, then hospitals and drug companies create their own procedures out of real or imagined ramifications of the regulations.

I routinely get an email saying "reply to this to refill your prescription" ... but they just give me an eight-digit number. Like that means anything. Some scripts I don't need refilled all the time, others I do. But I don't know which one this is. Yes, I could look it up. But if I'm doing that, I may as well order the refill from that page so the intended convenience of "reply to refill" is completely crap. Perhaps the drug company WANTS people to blindly refill...

And some health care providers HIDE behind HIPAA. One doc would rather not be bothered talking to other docs to coordinate care. Do they say that? No, they create a bureaucratic morass of release forms that never quite get filled out or filed right. Which I have come to interpret as time to find a different doc.

I think there is a right-size for privacy, but HIPAA ain't it. And it's growing. Which means HIPAA is costing all of us money and soon more money. And it's a PITA.

On the other hand we have phone spam. The Federal and my state have their own DO NOT CALL lists. Which cold callers routinely ignore. I've got my numbers on the DO NOT CALL lists. I've made complaints about callers violating the lists. The lists have no teeth, the complaints do nothing. I routinely get offers to sell my timeshare (I don't own a timeshare) or reduce the interest rate on my credit card (I never carry a balance) or contribute money to my kid's college (I'm paying out of state tuition - I'm already contributing more than I care to). The only solution is to not answer the phone if it is a strange number. Which immediately leads to me missing a call I should have picked up.

I'd like some enforceable privacy on my phone lines.
+15 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
I *can* tell you where having my privacy protected has lead to lasting benefits: in the workplace, I keep guarded my religious and political views, because they are very, very far from the mainstream, and would result in my immediate firing, because I would be accused of "hate" because I don't actively support gay marriage, despite the fact that I harbor no ill will to homosexuals and try not to be mean to anyone in general. Just holding certain beliefs about certain things are enough to qualify as hate in today's corporate climate.

Also, as a hobby, I own and shoot guns at a range on the weekends. I live in a very, very liberal town in the NY metro area. Other people in my town that have publicly made this known or publicly spoke against gun control have had their houses vandalized. So I am discreet, and keep my mouth shut, and I get to live a more peaceful life.
Aug 30, 2013
Blackmail is only possible when one wants to retain privacy. Imagine if the response to a blackmailer is, "Go ahead. Spill the beans. I don't care. I'm not paying."
Aug 30, 2013
Love the typo. Intentional?
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
[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.]

In chapter 11 of a book called The Dilbert Future a guy named Scott Adams explains how everyone is a lawbreaker. I suggest you read it. Once youve digested it maybe youll understand how folks can be afraid over the loss of privacy.
Aug 30, 2013
I'm definitely a shy pooper, but have no problem peeing in public restrooms.

In other news, privacy is something that can benefit you from voluntarily sharing. Forced sharing definitely creates more harm than good. One example I can think of is that a couple could potentially share a webcam of them having sex. This could have several benefits to the couple and the people privy to the information. And if it is a voluntarily release of the privacy, woohoo for all involved. If the government said every bedroom will have a camera to prevent rapes, I think we can all agree that's a bad idea.

An extreme example to be sure, but as will all things government they only do things at the point of a gun. Saying that you give up privacy to private companies to give you benefit so we should give up privacy to the government (even if they are transparent about it) is like saying because individual retirement accounts are good, Social Security should also be good.
Aug 30, 2013
"perhaps 5% of the pubic have it"

Hee hee.
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2013
To expand on what julesmartman said, there is also a difference between giving up your privacy to a select person or group for which you will have a personal interest or gain. But I would never post my medical records on Facebook. Having the choice over what you reveal is a key part of privacy, and knowing how a third party will handle your private information is an important part of deciding whether or not to reveal it.
Aug 30, 2013
There is a huge difference between giving up privacy and having no choice. Medical records are given when you choose to go to a new doctor. Auto ins. tracking is a choice traded for lower rates(I choose not to save that small fee). Most of what I see as the problem is that the choice is being chiped away in many areas. And your point about a transparent government? I am more of a realist than to believe that's possible. Every person or group (generalization, there are few exceptions) that is in positions of power and authority wants to keep it and while transparency is proclaimed in the public it is circumvented behind the scenes. This is not going to change no matter how many internet review groups rant back and forth. Even the NSA whistle blowing did nothing to change the landscape. The calls for oversight will give government workers more meetings and hearings to get more oversight , while the NSA still does it's thing to "make us safe"
Aug 30, 2013
Good job going public about an embarrassing situation to help others!

I definitely get your point and in general agree with it. But I can also site multiple situations where I've had my privacy invaded. I had a listed phone number until a stalker first started called trying to ask me out, then became threatening when I said no. And I grew up when social security numbers were regularly used as ID, publically shared openly. Someone else used mine to get in-state registration at my college, which goofed up my transcripts. Just recently, a crook added a chip to a gas pump at the station I go to and skimmed my card (Look for pumps where the part that opens on the front (where the card reader is attached) has a security tape across it to avoid this happening). And then there was that peeping tom incident...
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