Trading Privacy For Safety


Aaron Swartz once said, “It’s no longer OK not to understand how the Internet works.”

This quote has surfaced from at least one digital expert in response to British PM Theresa May’s calls for more regulation of the Internet, in hopes of preventing “the spread of extremist and terrorism planning.”

It’s meant to say that 1) She doesn’t know what she’s talking about, since clamping down in the way she suggests is technically impossible, and 2) No person in their right mind would want to destroy the cryptography that protects individual and business privacy.

Using it in this instance is misguided, at best.

To pretend that there’s no connection between terrorism and digital tech is like saying the guns don’t kill people, people do.

Of course, websites and smartphones don’t create insane people, but they make it more likely that they’ll stew in their own nuttiness, find compatriots who share their delusions, and act on their horrific, twisted fantasies.

When an academician unfairly characterizes May’s declaration as a slam against social media, and says it’s “politically convenient but intellectually lazy,” he’s purposefully missing the bigger picture:

Technology changes how we see and understand ourselves, and how we interact with one another. The Internet is a tool that potentially connects everyone with everything, and is agnostic to any of the norms or expectations of civil society.

How societies respond to those changes is the bigger picture.

So far, the argument from technologists is that we should embrace its benefits, while grinning and bearing its negative effects. Blowing up business models is really no different than blowing up nightclubs. It’ll sort itself out over time.

One area in which they give no ground is privacy, though, at least when it comes to the secrets that belong to companies; individual users “pay” for using the Internet by giving up much of their privacy to marketers in exchange for “free” services like email and maps, so the data those businesses collect, and insights and actions they decide based thereupon, must be inviolate.

The argument against Prime Minister May’s suggestion is that if governments can hack people or sites in search of terrorists, it may hack businesses (or others might), so it’ll destroy the financial underpinnings of the Internet. It will also squelch free speech, which would amount to a digital age thoughtcrime.

And it won’t work technically anyway, you dummy.

This pushback is ahistorical, and misunderstands the concept of privacy.

The automobile was a disruptive technology in the early 20th century, and cars prompted massive trade-offs in how we lived: The freedom to travel faster and farther was mitigated by driving tests, insurance, and speed limits. Governments built roads to enable more travel, and installed street lights to impede it (and imposed requirements on manufacturers to make it safer).

Today, the vast majority of drivers are at least dimly aware that they’re using technology that could kill them, or others, and are somewhat protected from those risks.

Imagine if carmakers had argued long ago that politicians had to understand how a combustion engine works in order to talk about public safety and health?

Privacy is a fluid concept, defined by the explicit and implicit concessions between two parties; it’s a trust transaction, not an inherent right, that is constantly changing, depending on the needs (and demands) on each side.

Businesses already track individuals, not just online but in the physical world (the distinction is becoming moot these days). So do governments, to which I can attest personally after getting a ticket from a camera mounted on a lamppost. Most of us have had our PII stolen at least once by now, and many willingly give up their most intimate details online.

Can anybody say with a straight face that individuals have been informed and willing participants in those privacy transactions?

Have people gained more or less control over their privacy, ad-blockers and other tech-based caveat emptor solutions outsourced to them notwithstanding?

And, while we quibble about visiting porn sites unnoticed, or the government listening to our phone calls, it’s not just possible but likely that future terrorists could be identified using today’s data science, and then Minority Report-like policing could stop them.

Think about that. It’s not sci-fi. The technology exists, if not the actual systems, and it’s based on understanding exactly how the Internet works.

It would probably require that people give up most any assumption of personal privacy, so it would bring with it innumerable risks of abuse, and raise incomprehensibly complex questions about unintended consequences. It might also work imperfectly, and sometimes unfairly.

Is trading privacy for safety an unreasonable concession? I have no idea. But it might be a more worthwhile trade than giving it up for better shopping experiences.

It’s the sort of question every society should ask, and for which I think the PM offered her poorly-worded answer.

We aren’t talking about the Internet. We’re talking about our lives.