Why We're Trading Privacy For Convenience

In today’s world, increasingly quantified and tracked by the Internet of Things, we are talking a lot about privacy.

When we stop to think about it, we are vociferously for privacy. But then we immediately turn around and click another “accept” box on a terms and conditions form that barters our personal privacy away, in increasingly large chunks. What we say and what we do are two very different things.

What's the deal with humans and privacy anyway? Why do we say it's important to us -- and why do we keep giving it away? Are we looking at the inevitable death of our concept of privacy?

Are We Hardwired for Privacy?

It does seem that, all things being equal, we favor privacy. But why?

There's an evolutionary argument for having some me-time.  Privacy has an evolutionary advantage -- both when you’re most vulnerable to physical danger (on the toilet) or mating rivalry (having sex). If you can keep these things private, you’ll both live longer and have more offspring. So it’s not unusual for humans to be hardwired to desire a certain amount of privacy.



But our modern understanding of privacy actually conflates a number of concepts. There is protective privacy -- the need for solitude -- and, finally there’s our moral and ethical privacy.  Each of these has different behavioral origins, but when we talk about our right to privacy, we don’t distinguish between them. This can complicate things when we start looking more closely at our relationship with privacy.

Blame England…

Let’s start with our moral privacy. This is actually a pretty modern concept. Until 150 years ago, we as a species did pretty much everything communally.  Our modern concept of privacy had its roots in the Industrial Revolution and Victorian England. There, the widespread availability of the patent lock and the introduction of the “private” room quickly led to a class-stratified quest for privacy.  This was coupled with the moral rectitude of the time.  

Kate Kershner from explains: “In the Victorian era, the 'personal' became taboo; the gilded presentation of yourself and family was critical to social standing. Women were responsible for outward piety and purity, men had to exert control over inner desires and urges, and everyone was responsible for keeping up appearances.”

In Victorian England, privacy became a proxy for social status. Only the highest levels of the social elite could afford privacy.  True, there was some degree of personal protection here that probably had evolutionary behavioral underpinnings, but it was all tied up in the broader evolutionary concept of social status. The higher your class, the more you could hide  the all-too-human aspects of your private life and thoughts.

In this sense, privacy was not a right, but a status token that could be traded off for another token of equal or higher value. I suspect this is why we may say one thing but do another when it comes to our own privacy. There are other ways we determine status now.

Privacy vs Convenience

In a previous column, I wrote about how being busy is the new status symbol. We are defining social status differently, and I think how we view privacy might be caught between how we used to recognize status and how we do it today.

In 2013, Google’s Vint Cerf said that privacy may be a historical anomaly. Social libertarians and legislators were quick to condemn Cerf’s comment, but it’s hard to argue his logic. In Cerf’s words, transparency “is something we’re gonna have to live through.”

Privacy might still be a hot button topic for legislators, but it’s probably dying not because of some nefarious plot against us, but because we’re quickly trading it away. Busy is the new rich, and convenience (or our illusion of convenience) allows us to do more things. Privacy may just be a tally token in our quest for social status -- and increasingly, we're willing to trade it for more relevant tokens.

If we take this view, then it’s not so much how we lose our privacy that becomes important, but just who we’re losing it to. We seem all too willing to give up our personal data as long as two prerequisites are met: 1) We get something in return, and 2) We have a little bit of trust that the holder of our data won’t use it for evil purposes.

I know those two points raise the hackles of many of you, but that’s where I’ll have to leave it for now.

I welcome you to have the next-to-last word (because I’ll definitely be revisiting this topic). Is privacy going off the rails -- and, if so, why?

5 comments about "Why We're Trading Privacy For Convenience".
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  1. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, December 5, 2017 at 9:12 a.m.

    Great analysis, Gord. I agree with most of it, but I also think "privacy" falls along a spectrum. And two things have changed in the modern information (ie. identity) economy:

    1 - Like any marketplace, you have to have your information represented in it to participate. If you're not "listed" you cannot receive bids (offers of value) based on who you are.

    2 - There's a growing recognition that so much data about us already exists in the world -- not just digital, but the long line of analog data collected, organized and leveraged about us -- by a multitude of third parties (marketers, list managers, platforms, credit bureaus, governments, etc.) that we're not really private, anyway. Just a matter of now un-private we are.

    The real question is how much is publicly knowable about us and whether that accurately represents who we are and what our value is to the marketplace. And to ourselves.

    But as you headline suggests, convenience is a powerful form of value exchange. (Explains why so many people use Facebook's universal log-in, etc.).

  2. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, December 5, 2017 at 9:38 a.m.

    I find it very interesting to watch procedural crime shows made in the UK. The first step is *always* to check the CCTV cameras, which seem to be omnipresent on that side of the pond. Not so much here (not sure who's right).

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 5, 2017 at 10:45 a.m.

    Bingo. The "to whom" is the killer. Really, the killer. Denial of health services, denial of jobs (sick kid not good for businesss) and that is just for starters and simplification for now. It won't be so gentle as you express it, though. PS: Stop twitting, fbeasting, et al and you will have hours more than you do and get everything done including what the data collector does and still have time left over. As you can see by such unnecessary hateful comments about garbage, too many people don't have enough to do as is.

  4. Mario L Castellanos from New Ventures Technologies, December 5, 2017 at 7:41 p.m.

    Great article with great points. What continues to amaze me are the anti-government, conspiracy theorists who so detest perceived government intrusion into our private lives – then tweet about it on the sign-in needed Android and Apple devices and all their other subscription services.

    At our ad supported OTT TV Network, no subscription is needed so we don’t delve into ones privacy. Our data collection is targeted but remains anonymous.

  5. Lloyd Peterson from Invidi, December 8, 2017 at 3:45 p.m.

    It was great reading this article so shortly after I tried buying something while refusing to use my loyalty card.  After I pointed out they overcharged me and was told the discount was only for card holders, I went through the whole refund and repurchase process just to get the discount.  I knew my privacy could be compromised for a price, but I didn't think that price was as low as $3.

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