The Agenda

Privacy as a Scarce Resource?

Jamais Cascio has a fascinating essay the increasingly rare and valuable nature of privacy in a data-driven age. He argues that while regulation is of diminishing utility, and while bottom-up privacy protections like strong encryption are considered suspect by governments that fear their use and abuse, pollution is a viable option:

It’s the last approach that really interests me: Pollution. Poisoning the data stream. Putting out enough false information that the real information becomes unreliable. At that point, anyone wishing to know the truth about me has to come to me directly, allowing me to control access. It’s hardly a perfect option — the untrue things can be permanently connected to you, and it does kind of make you hard to trust online — but it’s the one approach to opacity that’s purely social and extremely difficult to stop.

Quick question: for those of you on Facebook, did you provide your real birthday? If so, why?

Part of the reason why commercial entities are able to run roughshod over our personal privacies is that we’ve become programmed to give them our information. They’ll say in BIG SCARY LETTERS that you must provide truthful personal info, but seriously — if you give Facebook a fake date of birth, how are they going to know? If you check in from fake locations, how can they prove you’re not where you say you are? Your actual friends and family will know the truth.

And here’s the fun part: if lots of people start lying about themselves on social media, even the truth becomes unreliable.

It’s certainly an interesting idea. I’m reminded of David Grewal’s thesis in Network Power:

David Singh Grewal’s remarkable and ambitious book draws on several centuries of political and social thought to show how globalization is best understood in terms of a power inherent in social relations, which he calls network power. Using this framework, he demonstrates how our standards of social coordination both gain in value the more they are used and undermine the viability of alternative forms of cooperation. A wide range of examples are discussed, from the spread of English and the gold standard to the success of Microsoft and the operation of the World Trade Organization, to illustrate how global standards arise and falter. The idea of network power supplies a coherent set of terms and concepts—applicable to individuals, businesses, and countries alike—through which we can describe the processes of globalization as both free and forced. The result is a sophisticated and novel account of how globalization, and politics, work.

Essentially, Cascio is suggesting that we might revolt against the “network power” of Facebook by calling on users to engage in pollution of the data stream. Yet Facebook greatly facilitates social coordination; it is an “empire-by-invitation,” at least for most of its users. This doesn’t change the fact that a minority of Facebook users really does feel oppressed by Facebook’s “network power,” i.e., they’ve found it difficult to sustain alternative forms of cooperation. And this minority could use pollution to undermine the viability of the “empire-by-invitation.” But of course this behavior will greatly inconvenience those who profit from Facebook’s network power, by which I mean users who like having a reliable source of information about people in their extended social networks and not just those who own Facebook. 

One is reminded of larger social norms and institutions that have been undermined by the defection of determined minorities. Many people really were negatively impacted by the stigma against out-of-wedlock births. It is also true, however, that this stigma did in many respects insulate young children from the more problematic consequences of family disruption. 


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