Underestimating Privacy Risks
We frequently underestimate the value of privacy and its attendant risks. Just read Time magazine’s cover story for instance. The piece discusses data mining of our personal information and concludes that “everything about you is being tracked — get over it.” To be sure, the piece acknowledges the possibility that data mining could impact employment opportunities and credit applications as well as generate unease about the inability to control personal information. But it gives those risks scant attention and underestimates them for a number of reasons. First, the piece places undue faith in the prophylactic power of people’s ability to “navigate” their data trails. For instance, it notes that people are learning not “to say anything private on a Facebook wall, keep your secrets out of email, use cash for illicit purposes.” But one person’s responsible online behavior won’t protect against others’ indiscreet disclosures of that person’s personal information. (James Grimmelmann’s Saving Facebook astutely captures those sorts of risks). Second, the story assumes that the vast majority of data mining is unlikely to cause harm because “no human being ever reads your files.” Tell that to the man who nearly lost a job opportunity because Choicepoint’s dossier on him falsely suggested that he had two felony convictions. Twenty-first century technologies like data mining exacerbate reputational, financial, emotional, and physical suffering associated with privacy problems. We shouldn’t just get over it.