Power and Privilege, Privacy

Privacy and Privilege (first of many)

I have been thinking a lot about how privacy intersects with privilege, meaning, what one’s wealth and position mean in a surveilled world. A couple of recent talks in Seattle by Cory Doctorow, in which he alluded to the connection between privacy and privilege, reminded me that I can’t think of anyone else who has publicly addressed the issue–even within information ethics circles. I think it’s time we started addressing it. Setting aside, for now, epistemological and normative arguments about whether or not–or how much–we should be concerned about the ongoing diminishment of personal privacy by both the state and the private sector, I think it can safely be argued that privacy does have value to most people. Since the revelations of massive NSA data-collection by Edward Snowden, changes in attitudes towards data privacy are beginning to emerge. People using digital gadgets and systems do cherish their privacy, even if they don’t exactly rend their clothes or take to the streets in response to losing it. Even those who claim to eschew the value of privacy still demonstrate an attachment to it, as with Mark “privacy is an evolving concept” Zuckerberg and news of his purchase of the houses surrounding his in order to preserve his privileged isolation from the masses. As in the physical world, it’s hard to imagine that those with the power to attain more privacy will not seek to attain it in the digital realm.

We can easily point to ways in which privacy loss is already experienced more acutely by marginalized and poor people. Food stamp recipients (no longer using coupons, but instead trackable payment cards) reveal their grocery lists whenever they shop so that they can be prevented from purchasing banned items like alcohol, while those receiving corporate welfare are not prevented from buying alcohol, vacations, governments, etc. Low-income victims of domestic violence must reveal intimate facts of their lives to the state in order to gain a measure of protection while a wealthy victim might avoid this using paid legal counsel, bodyguards, self-imposed protective-custody at a resort, etc. Finance companies have recently begun using remote ignition locks to disable cars whose owners get behind on payments. The addition of such devices is an unlikely requirement for Lexus buyers, even with debt obligations.

Closer to home I had an experience that revealed the limits of my own privilege where privacy was concerned. I recently renegotiated my auto-insurance and, due to an unfortunate mishap involving a rental car, a primitive road, and a tree, my initial quote shot up hundreds of dollars. However, I was offered the option to cut that increase in half in exchange for attaching a device to the data port of my car that logged and transmitted information about my driving habits. The system, called “Rewind,” tracked and scored me by rates of acceleration and braking, and also by the time of day of my trips (late night driving was a demerit). While my driving destinations weren’t part of my scorecard, that information was also collected and I could view it on their website. After 6 months of surveillance and a sufficient amount of driving acts that met this company’s standards, my rate increase was reduced as promised. Had I been wealthier, there are many ways I could have avoided that surveillance. I might have chosen full-coverage on the rental car, for a start, which would have made the rental-car accident a non-issue for my insurance carrier. I could have paid someone to drive a car safely on my behalf. I also could have said “fuck it” and chosen to pay a higher insurance rate rather than agree to surveillance. I was surveilled precisely because I was unable/unwilling to pay to opt out. We see an increasing number of these “choices” offered to us, from the grocery store discount card to that “free” webmail account to the use of “free” mobile apps that collect info about our travels an habits. An increasing number of desirable services exchange surveillance for the opportunity to save money or use unpaid services. As Michel Foucault pointed out in “Discipline and Punish,” surveillance is a form of discipline and an exercise of power. My insurance carrier’s “option” for me to accept voluntary surveillance in exchange for a rate reduction is a nakedly disciplinary act, and one that I was subjected to because I couldn’t bear to pay the extra freight.

However, it’s not as if there are currently all that many ways for the more privileged to become invisible to the web of surveillance that follows us through the public square, across the thresholds of our homes, and into places that we once believed were entirely walled-off from the rest of humanity. In addition to making a lot of the same choices as everyone else to save a little money or get seemingly free stuff, privileged people use credit cards, shop online, view pornography, play fantasy-football, send email, and buy the latest gadgets like iPhones with as much, if not more vigor, than the rest of us. So many of our consumer and information seeking habits are now mediated by technologies that expose information about us that it’s nearly impossible for anyone to completely dodge the giant maw of data harvesting. However, I think this is only a temporary condition, at least for the well-off.

With market societies being what they are, and with privacy’s value increasingly debated and recognized, it’s likely that in short order we’re going to see a burgeoning market in privacy products and a myriad of technology choices for those  who can afford them and are sophisticated enough to use them. Depending on your views about why surveillance is becoming so prevalent and truly invasive, one thing is clear: Those with power, either financially or politically, are advancing, and benefiting from, the erosion of our cherished privacy rights. History shows that those closest to power are in the best position to avoid losing what they cherish.

Some attribution credit is due to Cory Doctorow, who mentioned some of the underlying facts alluded to in this post.

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