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Privacy is a good thing, right?

Almost everyone agrees with that statement.

Assuming the majority is correct - and privacy is a good thing - you probably have examples from your own law-abiding life in which losing your privacy created a lasting problem for you. Can you tell me a few stories like that?

Probably not.

Okay, now can you give me some examples in which sacrificing your privacy worked to your advantage? I'll bet you can.

Maybe you shared your medical history with your doctor and that allowed him to treat you more effectively.

Maybe you put your personal information on an online dating service and it helped you find the love of your life.

Maybe you showed your past tax returns to your bank and it helped you secure a mortgage to your dream house.

Maybe you were secretly gay or lesbian and it was a huge relief when you came out.

Maybe you installed a device on your car that allows your insurance company to track your driving history in return for lower rates.

Maybe you enjoy sharing your life on Facebook.

Maybe Google tracked your search history and later served up an ad that was exactly what you were looking for.

Maybe your favorite airline gave you a free upgrade because they know you fly with them often.

Maybe you put your work history on LinkedIn and someone offered you a job.

We tend to fear losing our privacy until it's gone. Then we wonder what all the fuss was about. It turns out that the bigger challenge than retaining privacy is getting anyone to care about you at all.

I know, I know: You want to lecture me about how an evil government can use your private information to hurt you. You might even toss in a Hitler reference or two because that helps any argument.

But I would counter that you're describing a situation in which the government has privacy and you don't. I'm not in favor of that situation either. If the government were to operate with complete transparency, not counting some national security secrets, law-abiding citizens would have nothing to fear. The government and the governed would keep each other under control. So don't confuse a problem created by too much privacy (the government's) with one caused by too little privacy.

Let's game out another scenario in which citizens give up privacy and see if that seems better or worse. I'll pick gun registration as my example because it's a hot topic. Suppose that tomorrow you could go online and see which of your neighbors registered their legal guns. What would you do next?

Well, if you don't already own a gun, you probably get one quickly because burglars can see the same information you see. You don't want to be the one unarmed home on the block. And because you're a good citizen, you get a gun safe, maybe trigger locks, and you train every member of the family in proper gun use. Now every home in your neighborhood has a small armory.

My best guess is that in that scenario the burglary rate in the neighborhood goes down. And instead of gun registration leading to government disarmament of the public as many fear, my best guess is that gun ownership would expand. And if the burglary rate goes down as a result, politicians would be happy to take credit.

The studies on gun ownership and crime rates are sketchy in my opinion, so no one can safely predict what might happen if every neighbor had a registered gun. Maybe that would lead to gun duels in the streets, suburban warlords, and sniper attacks on backyard barbecues. But historical patterns suggest it would be more good than bad. I say that because every case I can think of in which adult citizens intelligently gave up privacy in this country turned out well.

I can imagine insurance companies offering lower rates to customers who have passed gun safety programs and/or own gun safes. In the long run, you might have more gun ownership but a higher rate of gun safety. It's hard to know where that nets out.

Here's a story from my personal life in which giving up privacy helped tremendously. For most of my life I harbored an embarrassing secret that I am about to reveal to you: I can't use restrooms if any other human is nearby. For decades I believed I had some sort of mental problem. I was ashamed of my condition and never spoke of it. I continuously made excuses for avoiding situations with inadequate bathroom privacy. The inconvenience of it all was debilitating. Leaving the house for more than an hour was a nightmare because I couldn't be sure I would have access to a bathroom I could use.

Then several years ago, an unexpected thing happened. My older brother went public, website and all, with the same problem. We grew up together and somehow neither of us was aware of the other's situation. I later learned that the condition has a genetic component. It goes by the medical name paruresis, or more commonly shy bladder, and perhaps 5% of the public have it.

My brother gave up his privacy because he thought it would help others. And it has. My own problem diminished by about 75% within a year of learning that other people suffered from the same condition. I started admitting my condition to my friends, only to learn that a surprising number have the same problem. And once I was open about it, I found I could say without embarrassment which bathroom situations work for me and which ones don't. When I let go of my privacy on that topic, it improved my life considerably. With the exception of the Oakland A's stadium restrooms, in which men stand shoulder to shoulder to pee in a trough, I can now use normal public restrooms without much trouble. And all of that happened because my brother gave up his privacy on the topic and I followed his lead.

About 5% of the people reading my story just took a deep breath and felt normal for the first time in their lives. You can thank my brother's lack of privacy for that.

 
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