Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Consumer privacy is hogwash

One issue on which I do not see eye-to-eye with mainstream progressives is consumer privacy. I just don't see the problem. "Google is gathering your data!" they say. "The credit reporting agencies know everything about you!"

To which I respond, "Yes, but so what?" Try as I might, I don't see what harm Google is going to do to me with a smattering of my personal information. Waste less of my time advertising things I'll never buy? And I certainly don't know what privacy utopia these panicked progressives grew up in. The world dreamed up phone books and private eyes long before it invented AdSense.

So this Prospect post seemed almost tailor-made to rub me the wrong way. First, there's a Kevin Drum quote:
What’s most unnerving about this to me isn’t the technology itself, which is inevitable. It’s not even the obvious next step beyond just age and gender targeting, which has been common practice forever. It’s the fact that I know most people don’t even object to this. It’s just a better way of making sure that you only see ads for stuff you’re interested in, after all. And what’s wrong with that?
Pray tell, Kevin... what is wrong with that? Of course, he never says. That's pretty typical. Usually, privacy advocates just insinuate, but never explain. Their entire position seems built on the creepiness of having someone you haven't met know your name and address. But once you get past irrational, knee-jerk objections, it becomes clear that this sinister figure is actually just a computer database, most of the information it holds is pretty readily available through non-sinister means, and the worst thing anyone wants to do with it is send you credit card offers.

Then Paul Waldman doubles down on stupidity.
[P]eople who work in marketing are pretty smart. They understand the potential for backlash in these technologies, and they know that as long as they can convince us that we’re getting something in exchange, and they make relinquishing our privacy as easy and smooth as possible, we’ll assent, with our silence if nothing else. Sure, my phone is recording my every move if I forget to turn off the satellite tracking. But I have a friggin’ GPS right on my phone! And have you seen the 3-D building renderings on Google Maps? So cool.
You know what? Having a friggin' GPS right on my phone is awesome! And the 3-D building renderings on Google Maps make me feel like I'm living in the future!

Waldman and other progressives would have you believe that marketers and device-makers devised always-on, highly-integrated GPS gadgets as some sort of lure for consumers -- a carrot to entice consumers to give up privacy rights. They then moan and groan about how consumers have been deceived into giving up privacy in exchange for technology.

It's a bizarre rearrangement of the facts. Marketers and device-makers created always-on, highly-integrated GPS gadgets because people wanted always-on, highly-integrated GPS gadgets. They're incredibly useful in a huge number of situations, they're practical for navigation, they facilitate our social lives, they're straight-up cool, and they're just generally a boon to the people that buy them. How do we know this? Because people continue to buy them! In the millions!

Waldman and others act like the privacy-for-technology switcheroo has been forced onto consumers, but that's ridiculous. Consumers demanded technology that opened up gaps in privacy, and manufacturers built those technologies. Consumers liked those technologies and wanted more of them. Manufacturers obliged. There's no "potential for backlash" -- people are purchasing and using these products of their own volition, and if these products pass some invasion-of-privacy threshold, people will presumably stop using their products of their own volition as well.

It's much more likely that consumers understand what privacy advocates don't: when you disregard irrational paranoia, diminished consumer privacy doesn't really hurt anyone very much. On the other hand, having an iPhone with GPS, or using a search engine custom-tuned for your personal interests, is pretty great. For the rest of us, it's not a hard decision to make. There's no conspiracy, we're just getting what we want.

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