Law in Contemporary Society

Why So Few People Care About Internet Privacy

-- By JohnAlbanese - 17 Apr 2010

The Puzzle

In this lecture on internet privacy, Eben expresses that he does not understand why anybody would use Gmail or any other service that “reads” a user's email. In exchange for giving the Google the right to read every email, a user receives about two cents worth of storage capacity. Eben is right; this is strange. People do not want anybody to read their mail that they receive through the post office. Indeed, it is a federal crime to do so. Yet, millions of people everyday have Google sift through their email, and allow Google's clients to advertise to them on the basis of its contents. Most people probably would resent a friend who picked up their cell phone and listened to their voicemail messages, but people allow Google to do so for the mere benefit of being able to “read” their voicemails in their email. These puzzling situations can be explained if one understands dominant privacy concerns, especially among today's youth, as freedom from being judged in an unwanted way by peers.

A Little Veblen

In Thorstein Veblen's conception, one's esteem is largely dependent on invidious comparisons made to one's peer group. In such comparisons, conspicuous consumption shows pecuniary strength. A person buys a more expensive car, perhaps one that he cannot even afford, in order to avoid being seen as less successful than his neighbors. People are unhappy if they consider themselves worse off than their peers.

An extension of this theory is that people are upset if their peers are able to obtain any information that would allow for a negative comparison. Using the car example, a buyer accepts that the car company and the bank know that the car is bought entirely on credit and that both entities had access to his credit report. He would be upset, however, if his neighbor had the same access to the same information. This is the root of the old adage against mixing business with pleasure: such mixing can lead to the disclosure of embarrassing or uncomfortable information to a social peer.

A Corporation Is Not a Person

People are unconcerned by a corporation looking at their information to sell a product because it is not a peer, and it is not judging in a way that a peer would. A person will never have to meet a corporation, will never have to hear a corporation whisper nasty things about him, and will never have to be compared socially to a corporation. The internet is the perfect tool to surveil people. Since users feel that they are interacting with a machine or a computer program, and not another person, there is no fear of being judged.

An Illustration: Facebook

Facebook illustrates how people usually only care about privacy when the lack of it would reveal inadequacies. The origin of Facebook reveals its roots of invidious comparisons. Mark Zuckerberg was in a spiteful mood and wanted to make a “Hot or Not” website rating Harvard undergraduates against each other in terms of attractiveness. He hacked into Harvard's servers and took all the student ID photos. When the school forced Zuckerberg to take the website down, Zuckerberg accurately articulated the reason that people were upset: “Issues about violating people’s privacy don’t seem to be surmountable. The primary concern is hurting people’s feelings.” Students' feelings were hurt because they were being directly judged against their peer groups. Concerns about privacy are a neutral way for people to discuss the anxiety and fear of being judged unfavorably.

Facebook, in one respect, is just another way to allow users to display their social worth to their peer groups. On the homepage for Facebook, there is a link to the privacy page. One might expect that the privacy page would concern the release of information put on Facebook to corporations, the government, or other third parties. It might even discuss that it is nearly impossible to delete information from Facebook servers. This is not the case. The page is solely focused on determining which users can see posted information, ignoring that Facebook also gives it to outside parties. The overwhelming privacy fear for average users is having people who are not “friends” looking at their profile and making unfavorable comparisons.

Making People Care About Their Privacy

Therefore, to make people concerned about privacy, one must personify the snooper. “Apple is tracking your every move” is much less effective than “Steve Jobs is looking up your asshole, and you like it.” Next, one must show that the snooper is judging them. When I worked on a campaign, the campaign used an autodialer to make phone calls. Unbeknown to most of my fellow staffers, the autodialer allowed our managers to listen in on and record our phone calls. When I pointed out to my boss and coworkers that this was illegal, my boss seemed unconcerned and opined that I was probably wrong about the law. When I said that I knew the phone calls were being recorded because I overheard the field director listening to phone calls and laughing, my boss immediately sent out a threatening email. The next day I received a call from the state director promising that the autodialer would no longer be used. While the campaign was probably ultimately more concerned with the legality of the auto-dialer than the staffers' feelings, only the fear of being mocked moved my boss to actually do something.

Older generations have the ghosts of Nixon, Hoover, and McCarthy haunting them as a persistent reminder of the invasiveness of surveillance. Today's generation, however, does not have similar experiences to instill the fear of spying. Maybe corporations will one day overstep their bounds and get too intimate (imagine a Gmail ad for herpes medication), but until that happens, beating the drum of the potential dangers of surveillance by disembodied entities will not cause users to demand more privacy from the computer algorithms that monitor their phones, read their emails, and track their internet use.

I've made some stylistic changes. I like this essay a lot - in fact I'd say I'm pretty convinced by the idea that the average American Internet users' privacy concerns (at least those they act on) are more motivated by social factors than by "political" or "security" concerns, such as the potential that they might suffer some injustice at the hands of the state or that their identity might be stolen. That said, I'd like to know more about why people who do recognize these other dangers often suppress the urge to drop out of such surveillance regimes. Most of the students in this class know that google can see their prostate on a clear day - but that doesn't mean they don't use Google's services. In short: the remedy you propose (personifying corporations to capitalize on socialized behavior) seems fitting, but what really caused the disease?

-- Edited by DRussellKraft - 25 Apr 2010



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r3 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:34:30 - IanSullivan
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