Why we give away our Internet privacy, according to Cory Doctorow

Many bemoan giving up our online privacy, but few provide explanations of why we accept it. Learn what Michael Kassner found out from one who offers answers and a solution.

"Lawrence's PAN (Personal Area Network) went nuts, intrusion detection sensors reporting multiple hostile reads of his identifiers, millimeter wave radar scans, HERF (High Energy Radio Frequency) attacks, and assorted shenanigans. All his feedback systems went into full alert, going from itchy, back-of-the-neck liminal sensations into high-intensity pinches, prods, and buzzes. It was a deeply-alarming sensation, like his internal organs were under attack."

That realistic peek at the future is from "The Things that Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away," a short story by science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow. Among science-fiction fanatics — including yours truly — Mr. Doctorow is highly regarded for his ability to cross the threshold between today's world and tomorrow's.

Cory Doctorow also uses his unique perspective to write about current Internet issues. For example, "The Curious Case of Internet Privacy," an article in Technology Review about our trading privacy for Internet services.

An Internet story

Doctorow begins:

"Here's a story you've heard about the Internet: we trade our privacy for services. The idea is your private information is less valuable to you than it is to the firms that siphon it out of your browser as you navigate the Web. They know what to do with it to turn it into value-for them and for you."

Doctorow then points out the deal we make with Internet entities when we visit their websites:

By reading this agreement, you give — fill in the blank — and its partners the unlimited right to:

  • Intercept and examine your reading choices from this day forward.
  • Sell the insights gleaned thereby.
  • Retain information in perpetuity and supply it without limitation to any third party.


"This agreement is subject to change at any time."

Change at any time

And change they do. Last month I mentioned in this article how Facebook revamped their privacy policy — even replacing the word "privacy" with "data-usage." Doctorow adds:

"Facebook has more than once overridden its users' privacy preferences, replacing them with new default settings. Facebook then responds to the inevitable public outcry by restoring something that's like the old system, except slightly less private."

The Facebook tactic reminds me of the ever-increasing cost of gasoline. Not long after a bump in price per gallon/liter, resellers will lower the price — but never to where it was before the increase.

Why is privacy set aside?

I have asked security-conscious people why they set their beliefs aside when joining sites like Facebook. All I get is a shrug or an "I don't know." In his article, Doctorow offers two possible reasons. First, Net Present Value — I had to look it up. Here's what he said:

"Human beings are awful at pricing out the net present value of a decision whose consequences are far in the future. No one would take up smoking if tumors sprouted after the first puff. Most privacy disclosures don't put us in immediate physical or emotional distress either."

Next, Doctorow delves into psychology. He feels we are subjected to "intermittent reinforcement," a behavioral training technique perfected by B.F. Skinner. Doctorow explains:

"Give a lab rat a lever that produces a food pellet on demand and he'll only press it when he's hungry. Give him a lever that produces food pellets at random intervals, and he'll keep pressing it forever."

Doctorow feels the variability of social reinforcement on sites like Facebook keep people pressing the lever — in hope of a quick social fix.

Is there a solution?

Doctorow feels there is a solution. To start, use Lawrence Lessig's book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace as a guide for preserving online privacy. Doctorow offers what would work for him:

"Far from destroying business, letting users control disclosure would create value. Design an app I willingly give my location to and you'd be one of the few and proud firms with my permission to access and sell that information.

Right now, users and analytics people are in a shooting war, but only the analytics people are armed. There's a business opportunity for a company that wants to supply arms to the rebels instead of the empire."

Final thoughts

Cory Doctorow studies interfaces between humans and technology. It is apparent in his writing. When it comes to online behavior, he uses what he learned to describe a privacy anomaly in a way no one else has.

Would you still use Facebook, if...

(The illustration is courtesy of Red Nose Studio and Cory Doctorow's image is courtesy of Jonathan Worth/Creative commons.)

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Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.

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