Data privacy: At what cost?

This post was written in collaboration with the team at C³. Learn more about C³ at the end of the post. 

Our work is not meant to serve as an all-inclusive summary on the topic, but instead is meant to serve as a starting point for thinking and learning about it. We outline important factors to consider as you form your own opinion rather than trying to push you in one direction or another


Structuring the topic

Why you should care

  • Many people see data privacy as a concern only for a few. We often hear “I do not have anything to hide, therefore data privacy is not a huge concern to me”. This is flawed, and we will explore why.

The privacy-convenience trade off

  • In our personal lives, one of the most important trade-offs we make on a daily basis, is that between protecting our privacy and data, and living convenient lives. Entirely protecting our data would lead to incredibly inconvenient lives. Where does the perfect balance sit?

Privacy and scale

  • While most people would accept a certain level of data sharing, the scale and depth of the sharing is what leads to major disagreements in the data privacy debate. Prominent examples of such situations are in law enforcement and in advertising.

Key issues and implications

How should we think about privacy in a world of mass surveillance?

  • Edward Snowden defines privacy as “an empty zone that lies beyond the reaches of the state, a void into which the law is only permitted to venture with a warrant, and not a warrant for everybody as the US government did in the case of the mass surveillance.”
  • The problem with American espionage, is that it went from targeted surveillance of certain individuals, to the mass surveillance of entire populations. This is where many people draw the line, they argue that any surveillance (hence venturing into that empty zone that lies beyond the reaches of the state) must be justified. 
  • On the contrary, one may also argue that without this surveillance, or access to private data, the government would struggle to identify who to target, and therefore could never get a warrant. 
  • USA Freedom Act 215 now explicitly prohibits the bulk collection of Americans phone records. All private phone records are to remain in private control of telecoms.

This is an issue for everyone

  • It is very important to realize that you cannot ignore privacy because as a society our freedoms are interdependent. 
    • Edward Snowden puts it this way – “ surrender your own privacy is really to surrender everyone’s. You might choose to give it up out of convenience, or under the popular pretext that privacy is only required by those who have something to hide. But saying that you don’t need or want privacy because you have nothing to hide is to assume that no one should have, or could have, to hide anything— including their immigration status, unemployment history, financial history, and health records. You’re assuming that no one, including yourself, might object to revealing to anyone information about their [personal lives]”
    • This is what we like to refer to as the implicit hiding argument. By saying “I have nothing to hide”, this implies that everyone who cares about data privacy must be hiding a whole lot. And there are people, who have done nothing wrong, that in fact would want to hide a whole lot.  This argument takes away people’s rights to hide certain information (sexualt assault survivors, wrongfully convicted criminal records, etc) from parties who should not have access to that information.
    • What if in the future you wanted to hide something? What if someone close to you had something they wanted to hide? This interdependence of freedoms is central to the issue of privacy.
  • Even if you have nothing to hide, you should still care as you should about many other important elements that we value in society. 
    • In Permanent Record, Snowden writes – “Ultimately, saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say. Or that you don’t care about freedom of the press because you don’t like to read. Or that you don’t care about freedom of religion because you don’t believe in God. Or that you don’t care about the freedom to peaceably assemble because you’re a lazy, antisocial agoraphobe. Just because this or that freedom might not have meaning to you today doesn’t mean that it doesn’t or won’t have meaning tomorrow, to you, or to your neighbor..“
    • Similarly in 1964, german Lutheran Martin Niemoller wrote – “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
    • These powerful quotes from Snowden and Niemoller describe in a nutshell why we should care about privacy even if we do not value it as a central piece of our own lives.

Our digital life is all about the “Privacy/Convenience” trade-offs

  • Our words say we lean towards privacy, our actions say otherwise.
    • In his New Yorker post titled Why do we care so much about privacy?, Harvard professor Louis Menand writes how this trade off is nothing new, and that for over a century when posed with the “options of price and convenience over privacy, we choose the former”
    • When postcards hit the market in the 19th century, people were shocked at the privacy invasion that the postman and others would be able to read the messages. Mail was supposed to be private, but soon the low cost and convenience outweighed these concerns.
  • The optimal trade-off
    • Somewhere there is an optimal trade-off between privacy and convenience. This trade-off is likely unique for every person, as opposed to one optimal trade off for society as a whole.
    • Internet profiles
      • As years pass, there is certainly an increasing cost to privacy. Those who fail to keep up their profiles on Facebook and instagram may miss out on social opportunities. Likewise those who do not frequently update and engage on LinkedIn are likely to miss out on professional opportunities. A few years ago, people would not have dreamed of sharing their entire educational and professional history, along with interests and previous colleague recommendations with the entire world. Today that has become the norm.
      • On the flip side, as years pass, internet companies accumulate massive amounts of data on their users. We may reach a point where it will be nearly impossible to be completely “private” and unknown in the online world. However, being completely “private” is something that has been hard to practice even in the pre-internet world.  
    • Location
      • We would never want somebody, or a corporation, to know our location at all times. However, for the benefits of Google maps, vehicle GPS or “Find my Iphone” we are quick to let that privacy go.
    • Health Data
      • Health data is often seen as some of the most personal. Whether this be genetic, dietary or fitness habits, it’s all seen as private. However, as soon as we realise that sharing this data gets us lower health insurance rates, we suddenly stop caring about privacy.

Data and privacy as an asset

  • Entangled with the idea of a trade-off between privacy and convenience, is the concept of privacy being an asset. It changes our understanding of privacy from something others control when they choose not to intrude, to something we control – we choose to relinquish power when it brings us advantages.
  • Tied in with the idea of privacy as an asset, is that the data we produce is likely the hottest commodity of the 21st century. Data is the reason why players such as Facebook, Google and Amazon are as big and powerful as they are.
  • Why is data so valuable?  – All things being equal, marketers will pay more for consumers, than consumers will pay for content. Hence having and harnessing data can provide companies with a huge amount of marketing revenue.

Privacy and scale in Law Enforcement

  • How do we think about the use of technology in our law enforcement? 
    • Companies such as Amazon and Clearview AI are providing police with technological capabilities that will substantially enhance their ability to identify perpetrators, and provide insights on their whereabouts.
    • This type of technological capability for our government and police certainly evokes emotion and pushes many to describe society with the words “big brother” from George Orwell’s famous novel 1984.
  • Should we constrain law enforcement?
    • Louis Menand writes: “It does not make sense to constrain the technological capacities of law enforcement just because technology allows it to work more efficiently”. Let’s think about a few examples:
      • If a cop spots what is a suspect and it leads to his arrest, we would say, “wow, such great policing”. But if the policing system aided by technology has access to all surveillance cameras that spots the same man, walking in the same spot at the same time, we suddenly think of it as a ‘big brother’ scenario.
      • If an AI system reads and records all number plates via character recognition, we worry about ‘big brother’. But what if a super duper clever cop had a massive notebook of license plates and jotted down their movements every time he saw a car drive by?
    • Menand therefore also notes: “…but that (enhanced) capacity can also lead to a society where citizens have nowhere to hide”. This is a trade-off we as a society need to think carefully about. 
  • Why is this issue of law enforcement enhancement so important?
    • Firstly, we will certainly have a tough time detaining criminals if they utilize all the innovations of technology, while we force our ‘guardians’ to use the same methods they used to police our grandparents. 
    • Secondly, if these enhancements driven by technology only reinforce biases already present in the policing system, the enhancements may add more problems than they solve.
  • Although the biases concern is a fair one, most citizens are more worried about scale and creating a dystopian environment of nowhere to hide. Menand writes: “what makes us feel powerless today is the scale”. So then we have to ask ourselves – is it the scale or the intrusion that is the problem?

Scale vs Depth analysis

  • Scale vs depth analysis
    • The C3 team has developed this chart on data scale and depth. It is unlikely that it is entirely novel, however, after a brief search, we were not able to find something exactly like it.
    • The chart explores the relationship between scale and depth. The only time we really fear something, is when there is scale and depth simultaneously.


Prediction versus coercion

  • Many people, including ourselves in the past, were advocates of targeted advertising because they are showing me things I want anyways, and maybe simply forgot to purchase.
  • However, in Permanent Record, Snowden highlights the very subtle but important nuance between prediction and coercion. “Algorithms analyze our data for patterns of established behavior in order to extrapolate behaviors to come, a type of digital prophecy that’s actually not very accurate. Once you go digging into the actual technical mechanisms by which predictability is calculated, you come to understand that its science is, in fact, anti-scientific, and fatally misnamed: predictability is actually manipulation. A website that tells you that because you liked this book you might also like books by James Clapper or Michael Hayden isn’t offering an educated guess as much as a mechanism of subtle coercion.”
  • In a nutshell, you bought the book because you were nudged, not because you would have anyways.

Inconsistent behaviours

  • People may be seen as inconsistent about the kind of privacy invasions they’ll tolerate. We don’t like to be fingerprinted by government agencies, a practice we associate with mug shots and state surveillance, but we happily hand our thumbprints over to Apple.
  • However, it can be argued that this is not inconsistency, but rather a trade-off. In the case of a government, they may not easily see the “reward” of giving away some of their privacy “fingerprint” but in the case of their Iphone, giving Apple access to their fingerprints for an immense amount of time and frustration saved – it seems a no-brainer.

Potential Solutions

Protection by the law

  • In 2016, the EU Parliament passed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the most significant effort yet made to forestall the incursions of technological hegemony.
  • The GDPR treats the citizens of the European Union, whom it calls “natural persons,” as also being “data subjects”—that is, people who generate personally identifiable data. In the US, data is usually regarded as the property of whoever collects it. But the EU posits data as the property of the person it represents, which allows it to treat our data subjecthood as deserving of civil liberties protections.”
  • The passing of the GDPR went a long way to identifying that we produce data, and hence we should be the owners. Citizens of other regions, should push their governments to follow suit which would be the first step in a potentially complex solution.

Let’s protect ourselves

  • The internet is global and country laws are specific. Edward Snowden writes that every nation has its own legal code but all nations share the same computer code. This means that laws in one country do not protect people in other regions. This could result in a type of data arbitrage where companies focus on regions where laws protect citizens the least.
  • In this case, citizens should take ownership – they should use encryption, stay well informed and use the latest technologies available to combat this intrusion of their privacy.

Milk the data asset

  • Our greatest takeaway from studying the world of data and privacy is that it is not an all or nothing. It is a spectrum. See your data as an asset, and milk it.
  • Take advantage of the fact that you continuously produce the world’s most valuable commodity by ensuring that you are fairly ‘compensated’ every time you give up some privacy. This compensation can take a wide array of forms, but make sure you start taking control of the situation.


C³ – Critical Creative Collaboration

This post was written in collaboration with the team at C³.

Who: We are a diverse community based in New York City. 

What: At its simplest form, C³ functions as an idea club. Every month we dig into a curated list of books, journals, articles, podcasts and documentaries focused on a core idea. We come together for a day of fruitful conversation and collect all our most insightful discoveries in a single post that we share here with you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: