What always beats privacy?


loyalty cardsFor years, scientists, media, politicians and public citizens—hell, pretty much everybody—has been cautioning screaming about the pervasive and invasive tendencies of the digital revolution, its inexorable collection of data related to every aspect of our lives, the erosion of personal privacy and the eventual collapse of civilization that will result.  Yet, when laws and regulations are proposed to rein in this collection of data and loss of privacy, they are always delayed, watered down or struck down… and often by the very people who decry the loss of privacy in the first place.

Why is it that people who are so concerned about their personal privacy can’t seem to prevent others from getting their data?  Because that’s not what we really want.

What we want is cheap gas.  What we want is more of our favorite flavor of latte at the barista.  What we want are shorter wait times at the cashier.  What we want are customer service people who can present us with just the products we like and the brands we prefer, none of the things we can’t wear or don’t look good on our wall or don’t smell right.  We want computers that go to our favorite websites, applications that remember exactly where our most used files are stored, and passwords we don’t have to enter by hand.

Humans are ruled by convenience.  It’s part of our DNA: Make life easier.  And we will move heaven and Earth to make it so.  Convenience beats privacy, hands down, drop mic, go home.

Sure, there are people who manage to resist the temptation to accept convenience at the cost of some privacy.  But few of those people manage to resist every temptation.  And some of us have no choice: If your job requires you to punch a clock, or use an entry fob to get into your building, you are allowing employers to know your comings and goings for the convenience of taking home a paycheck.

Convenience is built upon trust, something we all want to have towards the people and things we deal with (something else that’s in our DNA).  In order to trust something, we invest in gathering some information about it, to learn about it, and in the worst case, to know where to find it if something happens.  Having that trust benefits us, as it makes our dealings with the world safer and more predictable.  And it works both ways; we will volunteer information about us, so others can trust us and therefore interact safely with us.  This is the way humans want the world to work.

It’s just unfortunate that other humans, knowing this, can easily exploit our desire for convenience to steal from us.

security hackSo what would it take to turn people against all of these privacy-threatening conveniences?  Simple: They have to become very, very inconvenient.  And I don’t mean inconvenient like, “Target hackers got my credit card info and someone paid for a dress with my money.”

I mean inconvenient like, “Target hackers got my credit card info, and all my credit is gone.”   “Sears hackers got my bank info, my bank account was zeroed out, and the FDIC won’t reimburse anything.”

As in people’s credit, ruined.  Loans cancelled and outstanding balances due today.  Mortgage payments gone.  Taxes unpaid.  Cars repossessed.  No money for food or medicine.  Paychecks gone.  Lives destroyed.  Lives lost.  Society’s trust turned into utter soul-crunching chaos.

And just so we’re clear, there’s absolutely nothing stopping hackers from doing exactly this.  Only their sense of discretion has kept them making small attacks, allowing them to siphon money in dribs and drabs as desired.  But sooner or later, someone will decide to make one big score… and any one or many of us could find ourselves instantly wiped out.

And, unfortunately, it won’t be until someone is inconvenienced by being totally wiped out will they worry about improving security and ensuring privacy for all.

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