Since the start of the Privacy Project, the most common response I have gotten from readers is a request for some kind of solution. They’re slightly freaked out and hoping for tips to shore up their digital hygiene or for a guide that might help them navigate the internet without giving away their personal data. For months I’ve included a Tip of the Week feature for this very reason, but I’ve always felt conflicted about it, because the hard truth is that our data is leaking and trading all the time, in places we might not even know to look. Each privacy tip you follow is undoubtedly helpful (and you should follow them!), but it’s a bit like a single sandbag in a hurricane: You need to amass so, so many and be extremely vigilant to make a difference.
I have argued previously that the personal-responsibility frame for privacy is unfair. And I believe that the only way to fully transform privacy is if data protection moves from individuals to institutions. But that said, I was moved over the holiday weekend by an argument that gave me a bit of hope that there are small ways we individuals can make a difference.
The idea came from the writer Dave Eggers. In an interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein, Eggers — who doesn’t have Wi-Fi in his home and still uses a flip phone — makes the argument that our public demand for more and more information plays a meaningful role in the privacy discussion:
“We can’t just blame the Big Five [Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon] and the surveillance they do and the N.S.A., because we are constantly using these tools on each other and thinking it’s O.K. Whether it’s getting email receipts, whether it’s parents surveilling their kids, even at college. Whether it’s spouses surveilling each other through their smartphones — all the spying people do on each other. People surreptitiously taking photos of each other because it’s so easy now and you always have a high-level camera in your hands. I think that we don’t necessarily realize how quickly we’ve evolved and how quickly we have superseded our idea of our right to privacy by our right to know.
We’ve evolved to the point where our ideas of privacy have evolved or our value of it is almost completely gone. I think there’s a few square feet and our skulls that we still retain. There’s the bathroom, the bedroom after a certain hour and there’s the space in our brain. But nowhere else do we expect privacy. And I think that’s a radical shift in evolution, and it happened in a few years.
There are bits in the larger conversation that I disagree with Eggers on, mostly because I think it offers too much cover for Big Tech. I think his argument that there’s a “public market” for privacy-invading services and that tech companies are merely responding to it and building products is a backward interpretation. I’d argue that it’s human behavior that’s responding to powerful, addictive products and well-crafted marketing campaigns. Regardless, I think there’s something poignant about this line: “We have superseded our idea of our right to privacy by our right to know.”
Writing about technology for roughly a decade, I’ve felt this strongly at times. I noticed it first watching Reddit threads after a mass shooting in 2012 inside a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. — a kind of online vigilante detective emerged, powered by the idea that almost any piece of information could be found and that, by virtue of being online, we were entitled to it. Since then, the behavior has embedded itself into the dark soul of the internet. The hunt for the Boston bombers, Gamergate, the 4chan culture of doxing — some of it is predicated on a behavior to want information that, 15 years ago, we might not have felt entitled to.