Meditations on the Tinfoil Hat Brigade

People have been worried about privacy for a while now and not without reason. The idea that someone has information about you that they can choose to use (or reveal) frightens even people who have nothing to hide.

Though I’m sure it’s been a problem in earlier societies, it seems particularly meaningful in modern times. During the last century humanity became much better at collecting and sharing private information than we’ve ever been before. We’ve got accounts with banks, utility companies, credit card companies, entertainment companies and even the government (state and federal).

All of these organizations know a little bit about us (some of them more than others) and can pass it around if they want.

It used to be that such organizations could only pass such information along if they were willing to fill a truck full of photocopied files. Now all they have to do email a spreadsheet full of the same information.

What’s interesting to my mind is that the problem of people knowing more about you than you want them to is hardly new. During most of human history, we’ve lived in small villages populated by our relatives. Whatever information government databases contain does not compare to the prolonged scrutiny of a lifetime of permanent neighbors.

The difference seems to be in who’s doing the scrutiny and what kind of information they have. Where in the past your neighbors would know your history and your possessions by looking over the contents of your yard or asking people around town, now that same information is contained in the form of numbers. These numbers are kept in databases far from your house, used by people you probably don’t know for purposes you’re not aware of.

In short, the difference seems to be that you don’t have a personal relationship with the people using your information. Another difference is that the people using your private information aren’t thinking of you as a person. They’re thinking of you as a collection of letters and numbers that represent you and your actions (whether you pay your bills on time, for example).

I have to admit to having different opinions about this than the typical internet user appears to. I’ve got a masters degree in sociology and have worked in a market research firm.

In short, I’ve worked in fields where success depends on me being able to use people’s private information. Thus, where many people online appear to prefer that no one knows anything about them, I don’t mind people having certain sorts of data about me.

For example, if Google were collecting information on the sorts of searches I made or the sort of topics in my gmail account, I wouldn’t be particularly bothered depending on the use that they made of the information.

Using it in the aggregate (to understand their users as a group) would not bother me at all. A company should be able to understand who’s using their services. That way they can attempt to create services that their customers actually want.

Even if they used information about me to target me personally for certain advertisements, I wouldn’t be bothered if they advertised things I actually wanted. For example, I know that I’ve given my marital status to Yahoo (married with 2 kids…), but nonetheless I’m still getting ads for singles matchmaking services when I use Yahoo. This irritates me.

I wouldn’t be particularly bothered if I were getting ads for web hosting companies or bookstores, music stores or movie theaters.

At the same time, it would bother me if information about me were being gathered and then sold to the government for the purpose of keeping track of what I’m up to. Even there, I’d be okay with it for certain limited purposes (determining my security clearance perhaps?).

As such, I can’t really count myself a member of the tinfoil hat brigade. Even so, the issue of privacy is important and I’m glad that someone’s paranoid about it. I just hope I believe them if they encounter a real problem.

UPDATE: For what it’s worth, this post was partially prompted by Ed’s post on a related topic.

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