“How much do people care about privacy?” This is a key, enduring, question in ongoing debates about technological surveillance. As survey after survey regarding changing privacy attitudes is presented as proof that privacy is dead, one might wonder why we should bother protecting privacy at all.
One common answer is that the privacy surveys are wrong. If survey-makers only asked the right questions, they would see that people do actually care about their privacy. Just look at the most recent Pew Research Survey on privacy and surveillance. We should protect privacy rights because people care about it.
While this answer is fine, I find it unsatisfying. For one, it’s hard to draw firm conclusions about privacy attitudes from the surveys I’ve seen (compare the Pew survey linked above to this Pew survey from the year before). Those attitudes might ebb and flow depending on the context and tools being used, and social facts about the people using them. More importantly, though, while privacy surveys can be very valuable, it’s not clear that they are relevant to key policy questions about whether and how we should protect privacy.
This leads to what I think is the better (but perhaps more controversial) answer to the puzzle: privacy is worth protecting even if turns out most people don’t care about their own privacy. As counterintuitive as it seems, questions about privacy and surveillance don’t–and shouldn’t–hinge on individual privacy preferences.
That’s because questions about privacy rights, like questions about speech or voting or associative rights, are bigger than any individual or group. They are, instead, about the type of society we (including all those survey-takers) want to live in. Or as scholars have suggested, privacy is best thought of as a collective rather than merely an individual good.
Privacy is like voting
Many of our most cherished rights, such as expressive, associational, and voting rights, are understood to protect both individual and collective interests. The right to vote, for example, empowers individuals to cast ballots in presidential elections. But the broader purpose of voting rights–their raison d’être–is to reach collective or systemic goods such as democratic accountability.