What if there was no right to privacy?
That question triggers a surge of righteous rage in many people, especially in the Western world. We rank “privacy” right up there with “free speech” and “freedom of worship.” But as we’ve seen (especially in the past 20 years of the information revolution), the notion of privacy has morphed into something more complicated.
To those who lived through the transition from pre-information to post-information eras, this new reality catches us off guard. In the 1980s, privacy was easy. You knew if you were anonymous. You chose to go public. But in 2019, privacy is challenging. Much of the time, you can’t tell if your actions are public or private – surveillance cameras, GPS trackers, and web tracking is so common that the average person could spend their entire day reading privacy policies and never understand half of it.
At the root of the anger is a contradiction: We want the benefits of modern technology without the intrusion to privacy they require. We don’t want our cars to know where we are … but we want GPS navigation. We want low health insurance rates … but we don’t want to share our dietary and exercise habits. We don’t want advertisers listening in to our conversations … but we want the best deals on products and services tailored precisely to us (without having to endure all of the other advertising).
To put it more simply, privacy is like celebrity – we want the kind of either that we can use when we want something, and then turn it off when we don’t. We want enough “celebrity” to get a good table at a busy restaurant … but not enough to get followed by paparazzi. We want enough “privacy” to keep our political beliefs to ourselves … but still get access to Facebook and Google.
Ask any true celebrity. You can’t have both.
It’s the same with privacy. There is no free lunch.
The issue is how we’ve defined privacy. Merriam Webster sums it up quite well:
privacy | ˈprīvəsē |
- the state or condition of being free from being observed or disturbed by other people: she returned to the privacy of her own home.
- the state of being free from public attention: a law to restrict newspapers’ freedom to invade people’s privacy.
That definition didn’t burst forth from the earth fully formed. It has a basis in law in the United States. Although the word “privacy” appears nowhere in the US Constitution, federal and state privacy laws cover plenty of ground. We can categorize privacy into four main groups:
- Intrusion of solitude: physical or electronic intrusion into one’s private quarters (usually, that means your home, but it can mean other private spaces as well, such as bathrooms and your car).
- Public disclosure of private facts: the dissemination of truthful private information which a reasonable person would find objectionable (the modern practice of doxxing falls into this category, and it is illegal in some places).
- False light: the publication of facts which place a person in a false light, even though the facts themselves may not be defamatory (libel and slander laws fall into this general area well, and it gets complicated).
- Appropriation: the unauthorized use of a person’s name or likeness to obtain some benefits (aka impersonating someone else).
Many states build on federal statutes with their own, more restrictive, laws. Many of those state laws cover technological intrusions explicitly.
With GDPR, the European Union went even further, creating an entire legal framework specifically addressing a modern concept of privacy in a technologically-powered world. It’s a new set of rights and rules that apply to everyone in the EU (as well as a limited set of rights for everyone else).
In many other countries, almost the opposite situation exists. In many places, the concept of privacy is subsumed by the interests of the state. China comes to mind immediately, but it is hardly the only one. Those countries made the choice that benefits of total surveillance outweigh the desires of their population to keep to themselves.
But beyond the legal frameworks and philosophies, the concept of privacy varies by generation. People who lived before the information revolution see privacy differently than those born after it started. Younger people tend to accept the tradeoffs more readily, or at least they don’t think about the downsides quite so much until something very negative occurs (online bullying as an obvious example).
We have to wonder: If privacy can vary so much by law, by country, by culture, and by generation, logic holds that privacy cannot be a “natural” right.
If that’s true, whatever gave us the idea that we have a “right” to privacy?
Remember taxation without representation? Today, privacy is like exposure without consent.
Before the privacy equivalent of the Boston Tea Party breaks out, a (very) brief (and oversimplified) history lesson is in order.
The concept of “privacy” is a new idea from a historical context. Pre-agriculture hunter-gatherer bands never had privacy. They traded it for security of the group. The first cities weren’t much better. Rulers of those small enclaves knew who lived there and much of what went on for their own survival. It was only when cities became giants (in the latter half of the 19th century) was anonymity possible – and therefore – a modern concept of privacy could develop … and then only for the privileged.
But it wouldn’t last. The beginning of the 20th century saw the emergence of the “social contract” – older workers living off the resources of younger ones, universal health care (in some countries), and shared defense/sacrifice. Even then, while you may have needed some sort of government identification, you could (for the most part) live “off the grid,” even deep in the city. In fact, that was part of the appeal of “the big city” for many people. The more people who lived in a given area, the less likely you will be noticed (if you chose not to be).
That all changed with the advent of the internet and has been accelerating ever since. In some cases, we gave up our privacy willingly for greater social connection (Facebook comes to mind). In other cases, we gave up our privacy unwittingly for the implicit promise of better products and services (Google comes to mind). We can cite hundreds of other examples. But while there are definite downsides for this new era of interconnectedness, in most cases, we gave up our privacy for the better quality of life these technologies offered.
Here’s the catch: To function, the technologies require ever-increasing transparency. You can’t remain completely private and still retain all the benefits.
For only a brief window in recent history has there been any true concept of privacy based on the choice to remain anonymous. During that short time, we tasted privacy, we liked privacy, and now we feel that privacy is slipping away.
In other words, privacy as we have defined it and as we understand it is a myth. It’s our poor definition of privacy that sits at the root of our frustration.
It’s time we redefined it.
Privacy as a right versus privacy as an asset.
Let’s consider a new definition of privacy as an asset:
asset | ˈaset |
- a useful or valuable thing, person, or quality: quick reflexes were his chief asset | the school is an asset to the community.
- (usually assets) property owned by a person or company, regarded as having value and available to meet debts, commitments, or legacies: growth in net assets | [as modifier] : debiting the asset account.
What happens when we do that? Let’s highlight the key differences:
- Privacy as a “right” – the state or condition of being free from being observed or disturbed
- Privacy as an “asset” – a useful or valuable thing, person, or quality
Do you notice something about the first definition? As a “right,” privacy is something others grant us as individuals. It is the “condition of being free from intrusion.” Do you notice something about the second definition? Privacy is a thing of value that you own. It is a “useful or valuable thing.”
That simple shift makes all the difference.
Our new definition transforms privacy from something others control (they choosenot to intrude on us) to something you control (you choose to protect your asset). This may seem like a trivial distinction, but it’s not.
Privacy is still all about choice. It’s simply a matter of whose choice. Shouldn’t it be you?
It may seem odd to think of privacy that way at first: You can’t own a bushel of privacies. There is no stock market for privacy securities. You can’t pay my mortgage with my privacy account. But that’s because we’re confining the definition of an asset as something tangible. But assets are not simply physical objects. The real value of privacy in the information age is information itself. That’s all privacy is – an information asset.
When we begin to think about privacy as an information asset, we see immediately a number of benefits:
- Instead of an abstract right, privacy as an information asset has measurable value. In other words, we can convert privacy into information that could be sold, traded, or invested.
- The act of quantifying our privacy and organizing it into categories illuminates its value. In other words, privacy is a set of assets available for your personal exploitation and benefit.
- Because privacy is a quantified asset, it’s also divisible. That means there’s more to privacy than “all or nothing.” You can choose some information to remain private, some to share, and some to sell or invest.
What does that mean in a real situation? You can decide to give away your private information to use Google Maps or Alexa. You can weigh the pros and cons. The choice not to use one of these services may be difficult or costly, but it is your choice.
Your privacy information asset portfolio.
At this point, many people are confused. That’s natural. Yes, we follow the argument: (1) privacy is a modern creation; (2) privacy (as we know it) is eroding quickly in the face of technological innovation; and (3) it is more useful to think of privacy as an information asset rather than some sort of inalienable right.
The rational argument isn’t the confusion – the implication of redefining privacy is unclear. In other words, how do we manage privacy in our day to day lives?
Privacy is unlike other assets. Sometimes, it is quantifiable like money (e.g. your credit score information), but often it is not (e.g. the value of your religious affiliation). Sometimes privacy exists on a spectrum (you can share a little personal information on Facebook, but not everything), but often it is a binary choice (you have shared your location data, or you haven’t).
The confusion is natural.
Information is such a new type of asset that we can be forgiven for wondering how to think about it. Each type of data becomes part of your privacy information asset portfolio. You get to choose how to invest your assets to achieve your objectives. But to invest with confidence, we need clarity on the assets in our portfolio. Let’s explore those assets and how you might decide your allocation strategy:
Social data is an easy start. If you use Facebook (and most people at least have a profile), you’ve shared at least some social data. In return, those services provide a way for you to stay connected with family and friends. If they’re free services (and most are), your privacy assets are the product you’re selling in return for those services. If you’ve ever felt like you don’t get much in return for social networking, what you should start saying is I am paying too much for this. Remember, just because you’re not exchanging money, doesn’t mean you’re not exchanging value. Consider switching to a paid social network such as Premo Social. I know people who’ve done it. The modest cost of those services allows you to retain additional privacy, and in effect, “pay” less.
This is another easy one…especially in the past ten years. Most (if not all) modern cars have GPS trackers. That technology allows automakers to offer emergency services and car rental agencies the ability to track their car after you rent it. Many also feature built-in navigation systems. All modern smartphones have the same GPS location functions, allowing Apple, Google and others to offer driving, transit, and walking directions to wherever you want to go (not to mention to share that data with other apps). These functions are so common, that you can be found by someone almost anywhere you go. Consider learning how to turn off location services when you don’t want to be tracked. Practicing this habit will force providers to ask you to turn them on and make you aware of just how often your location is being shared. If they want your information, they should make a compelling offer of value. If not, just say no.
If you’re like most people, you make a lot of purchases from a lot of different providers. Who has that information? Banks, sure. Credit cards, them too. Amazon, yes, but less than you think. How about your corner market, Uber, or Amtrak? You may use a combination of credit cards, checks, online bill-pay, cash, and gift cards. Today’s reality is that no one provider knows your entire purchase history, only you do. Services such as Mint are trying to give you greater visibility in your spending by aggregating as many of these different sources as possible. Even if you don’t sign up for one of these services, it’s worth understanding how they work and the value the bring. When one of them will offer to pay you for your data (instead of offering the service for “free”), you’ll be ready to decide.
Here’s the basic idea behind the credit rating agencies: You’re trading this aggregation of data for the ability to maintain a “credit score.” You can opt out in many cases (or pay in full, in cash, immediately, for absolutely everything), but a credit score is the inevitable consequence of living in a modern economy. (It’s also useful for borrowing money when you need it.) Do you think about your privatecredit history as an asset to be managed? You should. Frankly, it’s more constructive than feeling powerless when they make a mistake. You wouldn’t let your bank misplace half your paycheck without making a phone call, would you? Well, have you checked your credit report (for free)? You probably should.
Health Data and Biometrics
This is a bigger category than you may realize. Yes, health data includes your medical records (test results, family history, doctor visits, etc.), but it also the biometric data captured by your Fitbit, Apple Watch or smartphone (number of steps, diet choices, blood pressure, heart rate, etc.) In the future, and in some cases today, you will be able to take advantage of your good habits to negotiate lower insurance rates or sell this information to medical innovators. That’s especially valuable if you have got an odd genetic trait or family history. But until there are better protections in place, be careful about sending away for a “low cost” or “free” genetic screening. In the meantime, you can consider signing up for paid pharmaceutical and medical device trials.
Image, Video, and Voice
Pictures of you (or pictures you take), videos of you (or videos you take), and even the sound of your voice have much more value than you realize. Those photos and videos have value. Instead of a free social network, why not post them to a photo/video sharing network where you could earn some money? Voice is the next generation of human-computer interface, and Silicon Valley is racing to get better at this. They’re being coy about telling you just how much they’re collecting and analyzing because they’re hoping you’ll give it to them for free or for the “use of their product.” Make them give you more for it.
LinkedIn gets your detailed career history and job-hunting desires for free (are you seeing a pattern here yet?) But with more people become “remote,” “virtual,” or “gig workers,” the traditional linear career path will cease to exist. Your job history is more than a series of employers. Your career successes are simply another series of information asset – the entirety of which only you know. Gig job markets may give you a better idea of your true value than a salary benchmark website such as PayScale.com.
Political and Religious Affiliations
Of all the types of private information people have, political and religious information is also the type we’re most likely to give away for free. It may seem counterintuitive, or downright wrong, to think of these pieces of information as “assets,” but bear with me. Don’t think about them in terms of money, think in terms of value exchange. Is it worth it to you to support a political cause? And worth the risk of someone not being your friend because they know that? Then by all means, share that information. The same goes with your faith, although in a more complex context depending on the creed.
Defining privacy as an asset demands being intentional with your choices.
That word intentional is critical. When we think of “rights” we think of something we were born with – that’s where the word birthright comes from. We value rights, but mostly in an abstract sense, and often not unless we’re threatened with losing one.
By contrast, when we think of “assets” we think of something we acquire, earn, and use for our own benefit. If we don’t, we’re being wasteful. That waste can translate into actual money, yes, but we also can waste our relationships, or time, or our happiness.
In the modern world, no matter what Google or Facebook may tell you, there is no free technology. There is always an exchange of value. Most of the time, your privacy is the most valuable asset in the equation.
But now, you should realize that you are in complete control. You simply need to take it.
About Jason Voiovich
Jason’s arrival in marketing was doomed from birth. He was born into a family of artists, immigrants, and entrepreneurs. Frankly, it’s lucky he didn’t end up as a circus performer. He’s sure he would have fallen off the tightrope by now. His father was an advertising creative director. One grandfather manufactured the first disposable coffee filters in pre-Castro Cuba. Another grandfather invented the bazooka. Yet another invented Neapolitan ice cream (really!). He was destined to advertise the first disposable ice cream grenade launcher. But the ice cream just kept melting!
He took bizarre ideas like these into the University of Wisconsin, the University of Minnesota, and MIT’s Sloan School of Management. It should surprise no one that they are all embarrassed to have let him in.
These days, instead of trying to invent novelty snack dispensers, Jason has dedicated his career to finding marketing’s north star, refocusing it on building healthy relationships between consumers and businesses, between patients and clinicians, and between citizens and organizations. That’s a tall order in a data-driven world. But it’s crucial, and here’s why: As technology advances, it becomes ordinary and expected. As relationships and trust expand, they become stronger and more resilient. Our next great leaps forward are just as likely to come from advances in humanity as they are advances in technology.
If you care about that mission as well, he invites you to connect with him on LinkedIn. If you’re interested in sharing your research, please take the extra step and reach out to him personally at jasonvoiovich (at) gmail (dot) com. For even more, please visit his blog at https://jasontvoiovich.com/ and sign up for his mailing list for original research, book news, & fresh insights.
Thank you! Gracias! 谢谢!
Your fellow human.
Author, writer, consumer historian, humanist, journeyman, intellectual honey badger, more at jasontvoiovich.com.
I invite you to connect with me on LinkedIn, read my articles on Medium, and make sure to sign up for my mailing list at https://jasontvoiovich.com/ for original research, book news, and fresh insights.