Online Privacy Isn’t Dead—If We Fight for It
Breaking down the four fallacies around online privacy.
You’ve probably heard the line a million times before.
In any debate about privacy — whether it’s among friends or on Capitol Hill — both defenders of surveillance and privacy nihilists will inevitably trot out the same tired trope: “Privacy is dead. It’s never coming back, so this is a pointless debate to begin with.”
This is just one of the many fallacious answers used by those who defend or excuse corporate and government prowling, alongside such gems as “How can you complain? You willingly gave away your privacy to Facebook,” and “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” These statements are clichés in the most nefarious sense, they’re boilerplate platitudes that reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of user preferences, and more dangerously, they give corporations and governments every excuse to continue down the same path of snooping.
Below, I’ve broken down the four worst anti-privacy generalities and shown why they are worrisomely off-base.
“People willingly give away their privacy to Facebook”
Perhaps the most common anti-privacy argument, this one implies that because you’ve opted into Facebook, you’ve therefore renounced any right to complain about privacy violations. It’s an oversimplified and misleading logic. Yes, most people are aware at this point that Facebook sells targeted advertising on the backs of its two billion users. But are they really making an informed choice when they sign up for the service?
Studies have shown many people have no idea how much information Facebook actually mines. For example, deep in Facebook’s settings you can see at least 98 different data points that Facebook collects on each individual: your exact location, your income and net worth, and your home value. A recent survey showed that 74% of users did not know this list existed. And when they were informed, 51% “were not comfortable with Facebook collecting this information about them,” according to The Washington Post.
And even if you’re aware that Facebook tracks your interests, do you know it follows the movements of your mouse cursor on the screen? Or that it has access to your location at nearly every hour — even if you’ve turned off the geolocating feature? Or that it follows you around the web when you’re not on its site, can see what you type in your drafts that you don’t post, and scans your private messages as well as what you post publicly?
It’s virtually impossible to completely quit the tech giants if you want to participate in society. Beyond the technical infeasibility of refusing to use the services Google, Amazon, and Facebook control on the internet, it’s also a product of the network effect. Your colleagues, friends, and family are probably on social media, meaning there are strong societal pressures to maintain an account, to stay connected.
It’s true, some people can quit Facebook and make the concerted effort to do so. More power to them. But for most, there are significant barriers that deter users from deleting an account. That fact shouldn’t make users’ demands for privacy any less real.
“Young people don’t even care about privacy”
Older generations love to trot out this falsehood whenever they feel a need to blame the current situation on digital natives. The problem is, it’s the opposite of the truth.
During the Edward Snowden saga, young people were the most skeptical age group of the government’s secret mass surveillance programs. In fact, a major Pew poll in 2016 flatly declared: “Young adults generally are more focused than their elders when it comes to online privacy.” Study after study suggests the same.
The internet is enmeshed in young people’s lives more than ever before. They use it in new and different ways than older generations do, but on privacy issues, they are in many ways ahead of the game, not behind it.
The younger you are the more likely you are to use an ad blocker that prevents online tracking. People age 18 to 29 are more aware of their privacy settingson social media and have taken more steps to change them than any other age group.
Young people are also moving away from Facebook at a faster rate than any other age group. Teenagers, in their search for privacy have turned to ephemeral messaging, apps like SnapChat or Instagram stories that disappear messages after a certain length of time.
“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”
This is the most common retort that government officials deploy to defend their invasive surveillance powers. It was a common refrain of supporters of George W. Bush’s radical expansion of mass surveillance capabilities after 9/11. The British government made it their slogan when they installed millions of security cameras around London. But variations of this logic have also been used by tech executives. In 2010, then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in a CNBC interview, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
This is nonsense. Privacy is not about hiding or concealing wrongdoing; it’s about comfort and control of your personal life. Most people are generally law-abiding (or at least they think they are), but if you were to ask them for their email password to read their communications or post them on your blog, they would naturally recoil in horror. A lot of us may not being doing anything wrong, but are almost constantly communicating in private, personalmanners we would never want a stranger to read.
But there’s another aspect to this too, especially when it comes to government surveillance: You may not think you’re doing anything wrong on the internet, but it’s quite possible you are. Lawyer Harvey Silverglate once argued in his book Three Felonies A Day that there are so many state and federal laws on the books, you are likely breaking the law all the time without even knowing it. If authorities want to target you, it’s possible they can use your private information against you — even if you believe you live a pristine life free of any illegal behavior.
It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re fully confident your online activities are totally innocuous — you should still demand privacy. As Snowden famously said, “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
“Privacy is dead”
This is defeatism, plain and simple. It essentially says that the privacy train left the station a long time ago — so just get on board with reality. It’s an argument that’s been going on since the internet was in its infancy. “You have zero privacy anyway,” Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy said in 1999. “Get over it.”
It’s true that tech giants increasingly collect reams of data on every single person who uses the internet, and there are dozens of shady companies that traffic in our information. Data breaches are more common, and governments continually make arguments that they should have greater access to our data with less of a legal burden on them. The fight for privacy is — and always has been — an uphill battle.
But at the same time, many of our privacy rights have actually improved over the past several years. In the wake of the Snowden revelations, Congress passed the first reform of intelligence agencies in 40 years. It wasn’t nearly enough, but it was a start. Tech companies were also forced to increase the security of the services we use. End-to-end encrypted messaging, which before 2013 was only available to the technically sophisticated, is now used by default by billions of people.
In recent years, the Supreme Court ruled that police needed a warrant to search a person’s cellphone after arrest. This affects 12 million people annually. Last year, the Supreme Court also ruled police generally need a warrant for accessing the precise location information your phone emits as well.
This is not to say there haven’t been setbacks. Congress has continually renewed some of the most controversial NSA surveillance powers, and at the beginning of the Trump administration, they voted to allow internet service providers to sell users’ internet histories to advertisers.
But the trajectory is not a straight line. Many of the victories have shown that it is possible to force change if the public is persistent. Accepting privacy violations does not have to be the norm. The lesson is not that privacy is impossible, but that change or reform is always difficult, and ultimately, public pressure can work.