World After Capital: Getting Over Privacy (Finish)

This post is by Continuations by Albert Wenger from Continuations by Albert Wenger

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NOTE: This is part of a series of excerpts from my book World After Capital. Today’s post wraps up the prior discussion of why as part of increasing informational freedom we should embrace a post privacy world.


So we can’t really protect privacy without handing control of technology into the hands of a few and conversely decentralized innovation requires reduced privacy. What should we do? The answer, I think, is to embrace a post-privacy world. We should work to protect people and their freedom, instead of protecting data and privacy. We should allow more information to become public, while strengthening individual freedom to stand against the potential consequences. Such an embrace can and will happen gradually. Much information is already no longer private through hacks and data breaches that abruptly expose data on millions of people [116]. And many individuals are voluntarily disclosing previously private information about themselves on blogs social media. Economic freedom via a Universal Basic Income (UBI) will play a key role here. Much of the fear about private information being revealed results from potential economic consequences. For instance, if you are worried that you might lose your job and not be able to pay your rent if your employer finds out that you wrote a blog post about struggling with depression, you are much less likely to do so.

If you think that a post privacy world is impossible or terrifying, it is worth remembering that privacy is really a modern and urban construct. Even the United States Constitution, while protecting certain specific rights, does not recognize a generalized right to privacy (the word privacy does not appear at all). For thousands of years prior to the 18th century, most people had no concept of privacy. Many of the functions of everyday life, including excretion and reproduction, took place much more openly that they do today. And privacy still varies greatly among cultures—many Westerns are shocked when they first experience the openness of Chinese public restrooms [115] (although these appear to be disappearing). All over the world, people in small villages live with much less privacy than is common in big cities. You could regard the lack of privacy as oppressive, or you could see a close-knit community as a real benefit and source of strength. For instance, I remember growing up in a small village in Germany where if a member of our community was sick and couldn’t leave the house, a neighbor would quickly check up on them and offer to do the shopping or provide food.

You might ask, what about my bank account? If my account number was public, wouldn’t it be much easier for bad actors take my money? Yes, which is why we need to construct systems that don’t just require a number that you have already shared with others to authorize payments. Apple Pay and Android Pay are such systems. Every transaction requires an additional form of authentication at the time of transaction. Two factor authentication systems will become much more common in the future for any action that you will take in the digital world. In addition, we will rely more and more on systems such as Sift, another USV portfolio company, that assess in real time the likelihood that a particular transaction is fraudulent, taking into account hundreds of different factors. Finally, much of blockchain technology is built on the idea that addresses can be public because they are protected by private keys, making it possible even for transactions to be part of a public ledger.

Another area where people are especially nervous about privacy is health information. We worry, for instance, about employers, insurers, or others in society discriminating against us because they’ve learned that we have a certain disease or condition. Here the economic freedom conferred by a Universal Basic Income would protect you from going destitute because of discrimination, and by tightening the labor market, it would also make it harder for employers to decide to systematically refuse to hire certain groups of people. Further, we could enact laws that require sufficient transparency on the part of organizations, so that we could better track how decisions have been made and detect more easily if it appears that discrimination is taking place.

Observers such as 4Chan founder Chris Poole have worried that in the absence of privacy, individuals wouldn’t be able to engage as fully and as freely online as they do today. Privacy, they think, helps people feel comfortable taking on multiple identities online that may depart dramatically from one another and from their “real life” selves. But I hold a different view. By keeping our various online selves separate, we allow for a lot of inner conflict to persist. We pay a price for this in the form of anxieties, neuroses, and other psychological ailments. It’s far better to be fully transparent about the many sides of our personality than to cloister ourselves behind veils of privacy. Emotional and psychological health derives not from a splintering or fragmentation of the self, but the integration of different aspects into a unitary but multi-dimensional personality. [Look for psychological research backing this point]

Many who argue against embracing a post privacy approach, point out that oppressive governments can use information against citizens. People give examples such as the Nazis prosecuting homosexuals or the Chinese government prosecuting dissidents. Without a doubt preserving democracy and the rule of law are essential if we want to achieve a high degree of informational freedom. But the analysis cannot simply hold the level of privacy constant and switch out the regime. One also needs to consider how likely a regime change is for given levels of privacy. And there I am convinced that more public information makes dictatorial takeovers considerably harder. For instance, with public tax records it is much clearer who is benefiting from political change. Conversely, history has taught us that it is entirely possible to build a totalitarian surveillance state with minimal technology by having citizens spy on each other.