Counterpoint: The Internet Has Given Us More Privacy Than Ever Before
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Counterpoint: The Internet Has Given Us More Privacy Than Ever Before

The internet lets us hide all sorts of things from those close to us.

Ever since the first Edward Snowden leaks of 2013, it's been drilled in our heads that we have no privacy online, that Google and Facebook are eroding the little privacy we had, that the government can and does track basically everything we do. The digitization of our lives has ended privacy as we know it, the narrative goes.

But are we selling technology short? Hasn't technology really given us more privacy than we've ever had before? In a new paper called "The privacy paradox: The privacy benefits of privacy threats," Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes and Harvard Law student Jodie Liu argue that companies perceived as a privacy threat, like Google, have actually given us the ability to keep huge parts of our lives secret from the ones around us.


The argument is quite simple and straightforward: Google allows us to try to search for embarrassing symptoms without requiring us to talk to our doctors. PornHub lets us watch porn without going to an adult video store. Even a site like AdultFriendFinder, which was just hacked, lets us divulge our kinks under a screen name and, supposedly, only to people who happen to share them with us. Amazon or any number of other sites let us buy sex toys without going to a sex shop.

"We care about privacy as it relates to the people from whom we want to keep certain pieces of information secret."

More seriously, the internet allows a teen who thinks she's pregnant to do research without alerting her parents. It allows victims of abuse or those with suicidal thoughts or closeted LGBT people to seek out semi anonymous support groups. When I was a teenager, it allowed me to seek out and try virtually every acne cure or remedy ever devised without forcing me to talk about it with my mom.

"Many new technologies whose privacy impacts we fear as a society actually bring great privacy boons to users, as well as significant costs. Society tends to pocket these benefits without much thought, while carefully tallying and wringing its hands about the costs," Wittes and Liu wrote.

"The result is a ledger in which we worry obsessively about the possibility that users' internet searches can be tracked, without considering the privacy benefits that accrue to users because of the underlying ability … to acquire sensitive material without facing another human, without asking permission, and without being judged by the people around us," they continue.


The authors admit the paper is controversial, and if you've followed our past reporting on digital privacy and civil liberties that we take electronic privacy very seriously. So, consider this something of a counterpoint, an acknowledgment that, as Wittes and Liu write, privacy is "not a zero sum game."

When I shared this paper with Motherboard staffers yesterday, it immediately started an intense debate. Staff writer Jordan Pearson noted, correctly, that most people don't know how to conceal their identities online. By entrusting our data with big and small businesses and with the government, we're putting some of our most treasured secrets in the hands of someone else, where they're waiting to get hacked or otherwise used against us.

Being spotted by, let's say, a member of your church while walking into a physical sex shop (wear a hat and sunglasses, he said) isn't a given, but it is a given that your porn habits are being tracked online, by someone.

Jordan isn't wrong, but I get Wittes's and Liu's point: We are gaining one type of privacy while sacrificing another, and the type of privacy we gain is often more valuable and more immediate to the layperson than the type of privacy we're giving up by entrusting it with companies who want to use our data to make money.

The calculus being made by most people is that a site like AdultFriendFinder might get hacked, but at least in the meantime my friends won't see me desperately looking for sex elsewhere. Or, yeah, I am buying embarrassing things on Amazon, but the government isn't likely to call up my boss and tell him about it.


If the alternative is real-life awkwardness or a real-life, immediate loss of privacy, people will take their chances with the NSA

Even when something high profile and highly embarrassing like AdultFriendFinder does get hacked, there's no guarantee that you, personally, are going to face any real consequences from the fact that anyone, in theory, can now find out you are into some weird sex thing.

When you're lost in a sea of 4 million other people who have also been hacked, you need a specific bad actor, or a specific person who is particularly interested in you to actually expose your secrets.

Consider the chances that someone cheating on her husband on AdultFriendFinder has a spouse who A) suspects she might be on the site; B) knows how to access hacked databases of information (or wants to pay $17,000); and C) actually searches for her (or actually knows her username). It seems like a longshot, compared to the chances of some parent from your daughter's softball game seeing you cruising for discreet hookups at a bar.

"People often throw around the term 'privacy' as though everyone were trying to shield the same things about themselves and shield them from the same groups of people. But privacy is not an abstract value," Wittes and Liu wrote. "We care about privacy as it relates to the people from whom we want to keep certain pieces of information secret."

The authors note that government surveillance "threats feel highly theoretical."


"While many people fear government surveillance, many others make the calculation that the NSA has limited interest in them," they add.

Even if we take John Oliver's advice and remind people that the government has access to your dick pics, if the alternative is real-life awkwardness or a real-life, immediate loss of privacy, people will take their chances with the NSA.

This is similar to the flawed you-have-nothing-to-worry-about-if-you-have-nothing-to-hide argument, but it feels slightly different, slightly more immediate, slightly more relatable.

It is now possible for closeted people in highly conservative states (or countries) to watch LGBT porn without alerting their churches or their families or their workplaces. It's possible for a popular athlete to secretly be a huge video game or science nerd without alerting his teammates. Hell, it's possible for racists to be racist online, under a pseudonym, instead of taking the physical risk of going to a KKK meeting.

Sure, someone knows all your secrets, but in these scenarios, it's a server, an algorithm, a behemoth company, an advertiser, a government rather than your friends, your family, your church, your boss.

The problem is, as our managing editor Adrianne Jeffries and Jordan pointed out (and it's a point I agree with), neither of these types of privacy should be an either-or scenario.

Just because we choose to watch our porn online rather than walk into the store to get it does not mean that no one we know will ever find out things about us due to hacks, technological foibles, surveillance, or plain ol' snooping. And just because we search for something online does not mean it should be stored in a database forever, in perpetuity.

By entrusting these servers, companies, and governments, we're gambling that the immediate risk of divulging our secrets is greater than the long term risk of them eventually being hacked, leaked, or surveilled. And that, really, is what the ongoing privacy debate is about. Why should we have to gamble?