100 years from now, your great, great-grandchildren will be able to sit down at their version of a computer, go online, type in your name… and see exactly what you did at that one party when you were 21 and didn’t know any better.
We ALL have a digital archive of what we’ve done in our lifetimes since we first hopped on the Internet.
In many ways, the Internet signalled the end of personal privacy as we knew it.
Everything we do or say can be put online and kept online — forever.
Many will rage at this lack of privacy and say that it needs to be regulated. That our governments need to do more and that the corporate and authoritarian forces driving this invasion of privacy are evil.
I say a different approach is needed:
One where instead of worrying about what information is out there on us, we take ownership of it and live true and authentic to ourselves.
Defining Modern Privacy
Most privacy issues in the modern day are digital in nature.
This means not having our personal details and identifying particulars out there on the Internets for all to see.
Usually this comes in a few forms:
- Private photos or information you don’t want others to know about.
- Annoyance at corporations knowing where you are, what you buy, what you like to buy and then using this data to better market to you.
- Rage hate against ideologies/countries that are perceived as invasive of our privacy.
- Paranoia or delusions of grandeur that there will be unspoken world-changing ramifications if your personal data were released or discovered by anyone else.
It is important to note that privacy is primarily a Western, Anglocentric concept.1DeCew, J. (2013). Privacy. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/privacy/ Most countries had no concept of privacy beyond the basic “everyone has the right to close the front door of their house” until recently.
The Privacy Paradox
There is a paradox in our concept of privacy.
It goes like this:
This is to say, we will happily trade away our privacy for technological convenience, entertainment and other things of value to us.
This is obviously a bit of a paradox and of much confusion to privacy researchers.
How can we be so resolute in demanding personal privacy… when we’re happy to throw it away to share videos of our pets or use something like Google Maps?
I think what’s happening is that we are really trying to find our way on a gradient scale of privacy and value:
The question is — how do we actually work out for ourselves where we should be on this scale ?
Why You Should Care About Privacy
It’s worth asking why you personally care about privacy.
Is it because you’re doing something shady?
Is it because there’s something you’re embarrassed about?
Are you living true to yourself? That is, do you own everything you do and would be happy putting it on a giant billboard for all to see?
Or is it more that you worry about what other people will think of you and judge you for? Because that’s more about status, ego and virtue signalling.
Or worse, do you live in a society that persecutes your personal or political views?
The hard truth for most people is this: You are not important enough that anyone cares about your personal information.
The people I know who are the most paranoid about their personal privacy have zero reason to be. They live in countries where there is no real persecution. They’re normal people who are not famous or important. They don’t work in national security.
For them, their paranoia over privacy is about ego and the fear of being judged for their preferences.
There was a lot of recent rage over TikTok and their tracking of user data and behaviour. And yet, no one has ever been able to explain to me why it matters if the Chinese government knows that I prefer videos of The Stokes Twins over those of Charli Damelio.
I tell these people this: If you are really that worried, live off the grid. No technology. No electricity. No social media. No footprints.
For most people though, we actually want the opposite of privacy. Anyone in business or a creative field knows that the worst thing for them is obscurity, not infamy.
If the world wants to know that I’m a tall Asian-Australian writer who drinks too much green tea and has a penchant for waking up early… I’m all for it.
The Other Side of Privacy: Why Businesses Want to Know More About You
The other side of privacy is businesses and corporations and why they want to know more about you as a consumer.
Businesses love customer data. This is why tools like CRM exist. It’s why tracking and cookie technology exists. It’s why Google and Facebook are amazing ad platforms.
The big question is WHY?
Most people who don’t work in marketing assume that businesses want to know more about you for nefarious schemes.
Like to “sell us stuff we don’t want” or to “build customer profiles to target us for their evil world domination plans”.
As someone who has worked in marketing, let me give you the other side.
Companies like Facebook and Google are essentially in the business of collecting data on consumers and then monetising this data using advertising. I think everyone knows this.
For other businesses, they use this advertising and related technologies to find people who are more likely to buy their products.
(I know, revolutionary 🙄.)
Businesses don’t want to spend money spamming ads to customers who shouldn’t be seeing them. They want to specifically target customers who are their ideal customers and say “hey, we think you’ll like this, let us know what you think”.
Now this is heavily, heavily dependent on the business having a quality product. And I’ll be the first to say — there are a ton of shoddy products and services available for sale today that are backed by aggressively targeted marketing.
But that’s more a problem of product quality, not of privacy.
As an example, say you read this article and don’t like it. Well, in the future, I don’t want to accidentally put my content in front of you because it probably isn’t for you. I don’t take it personally, it’s just not good business practice to market your products and services to people who don’t want them.
On the other hand, say you read this article and you do like it. Well then I want to make sure that the next time I write something similar, you’re one of the first people to hear about it.
(On that note — if you DO like this article, be sure to check out my free manifesto, Evolution.)
At a personal level I believe that this system of businesses using consumer data to market to only people more likely to purchase their products is a good thing.
I would much rather see ads for things I’m interested in like green tea, fitness gear or superhero movies, than for things I have no interest in like retiree insurance, goat yoga or televised football.
People like to paint corporations as insidious and faceless entities but the truth is corporations are ultimately made up of people, including marketing people.
And smart marketing people know that if they have a good product, they have an ethical duty to try to get it in front of as many ideal customers as possible. This is why customer data for marketing purposes exists.
So yes, we can go tight on our privacy and not let companies track us or collect our information. But this means that the signal-to-noise ratio of things we’re marketed will go down2Down is bad for signal-to-noise ratio. because regardless of if we like companies having our data or not, we WILL be marketed to. That’s just the world we live in.
If we want to take it one step further, we could argue that corporations have an ethical responsibility to only give us things that are good for us… which may or may not be what they are selling.
And I agree with this. Businesses should NOT sell half-baked products and services that are bad for consumers.
Some people will go even further and say that most people don’t know what’s actually good for them and just want to be distracted, and corporations are taking advantage of this by using personal data to sell bad things to people. Things like fast food, social media apps, or unnecessary travel to exotic locations.
Well, let me introduce an idea here:
The only person who can really control you, is YOU.
Do you have the strength of character, purpose and enough mindfulness of your own interests to ignore things that aren’t good for you?
Companies can get in front of you and say “Hey Aaron, I noticed you just bought a Breville tea maker. Would you like some sweet premium sencha imported from Japan 🇯🇵 to go along with that?”
But at the end of the day, it’s YOUR decision whether you buy it or not. Yes, companies should not market you rubbish. But if you buy something, that’s YOUR decision to do so.
(And yes, I did buy that sweet, sweet premium Japanese sencha 🍵.)
The Other Side I Don’t Really Want to Talk About: Politics
Some people will argue that privacy is important because there is the potential for voter profiles to be created (both legally and illegally) and then targeted for political advertising.
Cambridge Analytica and the 2016 US Presidential Election and Brexit are recent examples that come to mind.
The truth is using personal information and building profiles this way flat-out works. It’s exactly the same as how companies build their ideal customer profiles.
And with one big, big caveat, I think this is one area that the privacy campaigners have right and should continue working on.
It’s one thing to buy $5 Rilakkuma-themed post-it notes you don’t really need… it’s another to have future-of-humanity decisions swayed by manipulative content.
The caveat I have though, is the same as the one I had with businesses and privacy: No one is forcing you to vote one way or another.
People may try to influence you and provide you with arguments and reasons, true or false. But at the end of the day, it’s still your decision.
This is where critical thinking and reasoning abilities come into play, so that we can all make informed decisions about our collective futures. It’s also where knowing who you are and what you stand for is important.
I would say that politics and privacy is a complex issue, but it is more of a lack-of-critical-thinking issue than a conspiratorial stealing-our-democracy-through-private-information issue.
Privacy is Anglocentric
I write for a fairly international audience.
And some of you might be thinking: “What’s all this fuss over privacy?”
Privacy was originally an Anglocentric concept.
Countries that have been heavily influenced by the Western democratic tradition like Japan and South Korea also strongly care about privacy.
Ironically, these are probably also the places where governmental overreach into personal and private affairs is the least likely to happen.
Yet, their populations still care, and often care loudly. Why is that?
I think in a democratic setting how much privacy you demand comes down to how much you trust your government.
In places like Singapore, Germany or New Zealand… you don’t see people raging on about privacy because they trust their governments to be responsible with their data and private information.
In places where people don’t trust their elected officials like Australia or the US, people are a lot more vocal about their privacy.4Interestingly, London has the most CCTV cameras per capita of anywhere in the world outside China. See Buchholz, K. (2020). The Most Surveilled Cities in the World. https://www.statista.com/chart/19256/the-most-surveilled-cities-in-the-world/
In non-democratic settings it’s a bit more interesting.
I believe that there is an intersection of: Perception of government, culture and persecution, that plays into how people approach privacy in their countries.
I’ll use Thailand as example, as that’s where I’m writing this from.
The trust in the government here is generally low. Not in a conspiracy-theory kind of way, more in an ineptitude kind of way. But most people couldn’t care less about their privacy — they see themselves as having nothing to hide, and there’s nothing shameful going on. The culture is also fairly extroverted and I believe that plays a role. Outside of certain sensitive topics, persecution is uncommon.
In other places, the people know that their governmental system is so bad that they don’t really care and just shrug and say “whatever” — and subsequently have zero expectation of privacy.
In other places like China, it’s more complex.
China gets beat up a lot by Western standards for having a one-party system of government.5Interestingly, Singapore and Japan are also effectively one-party states. See https://www.wikiwand.com/en/People%27s_Action_Party and https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Liberal_Democratic_Party_(Japan). They also get railed on for a lack of civil rights.
But independent Western studies show that the majority of average Chinese citizens trust their government.6Cunningham, E., Saich, T., Turiel, J. (2020). Understanding CCP Resilience: Surveying Chinese Public Opinion Through Time. Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. https://ash.harvard.edu/publications/understanding-ccp-resilience-surveying-chinese-public-opinion-through-time
They’re happy to trade their privacy (and freedoms) for a rise in living standards and the continuation of Chinese civilisation.
I like to think of this as the privacy paradox on a mass scale.
If you were a rural labourer all your life and I told you that your children could all grow up to be white collar doctors, accountants, lawyers and professionals and all you had to do was give up your personal privacy when it comes to public or national security issues… would you say yes?
In this case privacy (and other civil rights) are being traded for new cars, bigger houses, better food and more income instead of funny cat videos.
It’s also worth noting that privacy and the freedom of speech are two related but different things. I think we can say that most governments really don’t care what you do or say in private. But many DO care what you say publicly — but that’s a freedom of speech issue, not a protection of personal privacy issue.
If you grew up in the West you may just be thinking “but everyone should just have a right to privacy”. Well, we may value privacy, but it doesn’t mean the rest of the world does.
My Personal Approach to Privacy
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this exploration of privacy and I wanted to close with some of my personal approaches to private information.
I always tell my privacy-oriented friends:
If you need to record something private, write it down on paper. And burn it after. If you need to discuss something private, let’s talk in-person.
Basically, if you don’t want anyone to see it, don’t put it online.
This being said, I think you should be doing at least the basics to protect your personal data and information. Just because it’s “OK” for companies and governments to have your data… that doesn’t mean you can be negligent about it.
In practice this means:
- It is your responsibility to protect your privacy and data, not your government’s or anybody else’s.
- Use letter sealing and end-to-end encryption for your messaging.
- Use a strong password manager like 1Password and use different passwords for everything.
- Use 2FA (two-factor authentication) for everything you can.
- Know what data your apps have access to and fine-tune the controls.
- If you don’t want anyone to see it, don’t put it online or on a device.
There’s probably more than this you can do, but these are what I would consider the basics.
Obviously there are special cases and exceptions to this.
If you work in national security or a highly sensitive area, you should take your privacy very, very seriously and border on paranoia. I take this as having no social media presence, using air-gapped or siloed phones and devices and a VPN, and following your organisation’s guidelines to the letter.
If you are an abuse victim past or present, you should take your privacy very seriously.
If you live in a country that has clear persecution based on personal information, you should do your best to understand what the rules, laws, practices and norms are, and abide by them.
A true independence approach
One of the ideas that I talk about in my manifesto, Evolution, is true independence, or living true to your desires.
It means “do your own thing and take ownership of who you are”, even if it’s not the societal norm.
I believe this also applies to privacy.
I am who I am in my writing, talking with my readers and clients and in my personal life — what you see is what you get.
This is the idea of taking ownership of who I am and trying to be the best that I can be, with nothing to hide.
I have no doubt that some of my hobbies and how I spend my time will raise eyebrows amongst certain people, but I’m OK with that.7Anyone else track how long it takes them to brew tea in the morning? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
This approach to privacy means that we do what we have to in order to protect our privacy, but we aren’t going to start a revolution over it.
People often forget that even though they control their own privacy, they can’t really control much else in life. If you tell something to a friend, neighbour, family member or co-worker and THEY are lax with that information… it’s bye-bye privacy.
Because of this, I believe that we should really just live true to who we are, but to go about it in an intelligent and rational manner.
Look out for your own interests and live how you want to live, but there’s no need to be outspoken about something for the sake of being outspoken about it. It seems like everybody wants their opinion heard nowadays, but there’s no reason behind it — they just want to be heard.
Sometimes, to protect our privacy, it’s better to know who we are and live it… than to shout it from the rooftops for everyone to hear.
This brings us back to the privacy paradox: Most of us want to protect our privacy, but are willing to trade some of it for modern convenience.
And that’s perfectly fine.
What To Do Next
Probability states that if you’re reading this article, you don’t really need to worry about your personal privacy that much.
Do what you believe is prudent to protect yourself and your personal information. But don’t go out of the way to inconvenience yourself because of unfounded paranoia.
More importantly, live and be true to yourself. If you have nothing to hide, then you don’t really have anything to worry about.
- DeCew, J. (2013). Privacy. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/privacy/
- Down is bad for signal-to-noise ratio.
- Ironically, these are also the Five Eyes countries.
- Interestingly, London has the most CCTV cameras per capita of anywhere in the world outside China. See Buchholz, K. (2020). The Most Surveilled Cities in the World. https://www.statista.com/chart/19256/the-most-surveilled-cities-in-the-world/
- Interestingly, Singapore and Japan are also effectively one-party states. See https://www.wikiwand.com/en/People%27s_Action_Party and https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Liberal_Democratic_Party_(Japan).
- Cunningham, E., Saich, T., Turiel, J. (2020). Understanding CCP Resilience: Surveying Chinese Public Opinion Through Time. Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. https://ash.harvard.edu/publications/understanding-ccp-resilience-surveying-chinese-public-opinion-through-time
- Anyone else track how long it takes them to brew tea in the morning? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?