The Value of Privacy

What we really value is the freedom to choose when we'll give up some privacy and when we'll tell people to butt out.



Scarlett Johansson left nude photos of herself on her computer. A hacker grabbed them and sent them to gossip websites.

A Pennsylvania high school issued laptop computers to students and then remotely activated the laptops' cameras to watch the students when they were away from school.

On my computer, a program called Disconnect reveals that my favorite websites spy on me and track what I like to read, what I browse, what I buy.

Privacy is almost a thing of the past. 

As I explain on my show this week, I follow the advice of "experts." I buy anti-virus software (today a virus is more likely to steal your credit card and bank info than harm your computer). I sometimes change passwords. But someone still might steal my data.

I'm told I should be upset about this. But I'm not. Already, I voluntarily give up privacy. Amazon has my credit card info. Facebook, Google,, etc., know my preferences.

I resent that websites demand I click "agree" to say that I've read their complex terms and conditions. (I click "agree," but no one reads them.)

By comparison, the National Security Agency's (NSA) data mining seems relatively benign. They just gather patterns of phone numbers. They say they don't listen to my calls or know my name. Do we trust them?

But the distinction we care about shouldn't be whether they know my name. The important difference is whether what you do is voluntary. 

You can decide whether to use Facebook or let private sites install cookies to track your info. Johansson didn't give that hacker permission to steal her photos. And I didn't give the NSA—not to mention the IRS, FBI, etc.—permission to access my information. 

Sometimes people say that sharing information with Amazon or Facebook is just as involuntary, but the truth is that we're just too lazy to check their privacy policies. 

And there's a good, rational reason we don't worry so much about companies: Even if they get ahold of my embarrassing information, all they can do with it is try to sell us things. Amazon's not going to raid your home with a SWAT team the way government might if it gets the wrong impression from your emails. Facebook can't forcibly take my money or put me in jail. 

Because of the Internet, I changed my behavior years ago. I try not to email anything too embarrassing. I'm aware that when I surf the Web, someone might watch. And if you find out what I like to do on the weekend, what medications I take, or that I have seen a psychotherapist, so what? I'm not ashamed. Losing some privacy is a price I'll pay for progress.

But here's the thing: With all the private, voluntary transactions, I can at least decide whether the risk is worth it. I don't get to make that calculation when government decides it wants to know more about me. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Agency wants black box recorders to be mandatory in all cars. The bureaucrats say they need to keep track of how we drive and where we go—but not to spy on us, they say. 

They promise they won't tell anyone that you see a psychologist or go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. They just want your travel pattern in order to know where to build the next highway, add mass transit, and so on. And if you are in an accident, the black box may reveal important information about who is at fault. Maybe the other guy was speeding. Now the lawyers will have more information. 

And don't we trust the government? 

No, not always.

But we don't place an infinite value on privacy. Sometimes we're willing to give up some of it—to friends, doctors, companies with whom we want to do business. What we really value is the freedom to choose when we'll do that and when we'll tell people to butt out. 

We can never tell government to butt out.

NEXT: Of Course Recidivism Is High When Everything Is a Crime

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  1. Is it true that a regular commenter likes Stossel?

    1. So fitting that you out-firsted me.

  2. Damn, I like Stossel.

  3. I think the much bigger distinction is that since Amazon is a PARTY to my transaction, we’re not really talking about our own information any more anyway. That information is just as much Amazon’s as it is ours. It’s only natural that they would know it.

    Saying “Amazon knows about your purchases, so it shouldn’t be a big deal to you if the NSA knows!” is like saying, “Your wife can see you fucking her, so you shouldn’t mind if the neighbors watch, too.”

    1. It’s more like saying “Your wife can see you fucking her, so you shouldn’t mind if some pervert you don’t know sneaks into your house whenever he wants and watches whatever he wants.”

  4. “Your wife can see you fucking her, so you shouldn’t mind if the neighbors watch, too.”

    Hear! Hear!

    1. depends on if she is a babe

  5. Privacy in an age of computers? People have given away to the kingdom on this one. Google mail, facebook, etc. If people would have read the disclaimers and thought it through they would have seen the writing on the wall. Instead we grabbed for the ‘free-shit.’

    Now we want our privacy back? Caveat emptor, it is too late.

    “Knowledge is power”, sounds hackneyed but it is true. The problem is not just government, but google and amazon. Such a concentration of power regardless whether it is elected or not is inimical for liberty to continue long term.

    The real pisser is the government now only has to pressure a few entities to get all the marbles.

    1. When Google’s henchmen have the authority to shoot me for resisting arrest, I will start to worry about using Google’s products.

      There is a real, non-trivial difference between stupidly disclosing personal information through social media and having an agency of the state monitor all your fucking communications.

      1. I think Google is passing your information to the feds ……..-to-the-us

        which in a sense makes them Henchmen of big brother – which is the point I was making.

        There is most definitely a difference be google and amazon and the state – not arguing that. I am not arguing an equivalence. But there is evidence of cooperation – probably coerced.

      2. Yes, but since Google has been asked to act concert with the government, it can be a conduit for them.

    2. The problem is just government. Google and Amazon don’t force you to do business with them.

      1. I never implied coercion on their part. But now that they have the information the state has a nice fat target to go after.

    3. Again, the big problem is the “business records exemption” to the 4th amendment.

      My purchase history at Amazon isn’t my private information. It’s my information and Amazon’s information.

      The definition of privacy isn’t “People you do business with should be forced to forget they did business with you.” It should be, “When you do business with somebody, the government shouldn’t be allowed to get a record of that unless both parties consent or the government establishes probable cause to obtain a warrant.”

      Two-party 4th Amendment protection is the key. Get that in place, and 90% of the loss of privacy in the modern era is restored.

      1. Black Markets for the win.

      2. Funny how the first amendment applies to corporations (because they rightly count as people, too), but the 4th does not.

        Fucking fucks.

      3. “It’s my information and Amazon’s information.”
        Which is why the state does not have to bother you with the details … they just knock on Amazon’s door.

        1. Your spouse, your doctor, your lawyer, and your priest. Those are the only people that can’t be compelled (or threatened) to force them to pass on to the government anything you tell them.

          Why do you expect Google, Amazon, and Facebook to stand up to agencies that can crush their businesses?

          1. “Why do you expect Google, Amazon, and Facebook to stand up to agencies that can crush their businesses?”
            Looking at what I wrote above, I do not think I inferred that. The point was that given the nature of businesses like google and amazon their amassing of information has made the states confiscation of that information a near certainty. but that is hindsight talking.

            Most people did not see this outcome when it was on the horizon in front of them.

            1. Most people did not see this outcome when it was on the horizon in front of them.

              Most people have their heads shoved up their asses.

              1. Just curious, you are implying that you saw this coming. Do you have a google, FB, or amazon account? Or some other social media?

                1. I learned in the mid-80s when PCs started to show up on our desks that you never wrote anything in an electronic file that you didn’t want 1) your boss to read, 2) your wife to read, 3) the whole town to read (I worked with an interesting collection of practical jokers).

                  I have a gmail account because I have three android devices. I don’t use it. Google emails me marketing shit that I just delete.

                  I have a FB account. I have the privacy settings at the most restrictive and I post nothing of any real value to Facebook.

                  I buy lots of shit online (Amazon and others). I expect these companies to actually implement their privacy policies. But I also know that the Patriot Act means they need to roll over and offer their asses to the FedGov when it comes knocking. I keep that in mind when I buy stuff with a credit card — online or offline.

                  I’ve been a cynical and parnoid prick since I was a youth.

  6. “And don’t we trust the government? No, not always”

    Actually, “just about never” is closer to the truth.
    “No”, is more succinct and accurate.

    1. Not only no, but hell no.

  7. I try to keep a pretty low profile, old flip phone, few calls, no facebook, pay cash, but they still have way too much of my info.

    It just sucks.

    Yeah, I like Stossel too. Some day I might even watch those 60+ episodes of his show I have clogging up my DVR.

    1. probably does not help that u r commenting here on a libertarian website.

  8. Privacy is so overrated.

    If you don’t have a sex tape online somewhere, you’re not really living.

    1. It just means you’re old.

  9. We don’t have a RIGHT to privacy. How could we? We don’t have a RIGHT to anything, and arguing that we do makes native freedom a liberty granted by some entity. As George Will reiterated recently, republicanism was founded on the idea that there was no such grant, and David Hume and James Madison, notwithstanding, there’s no “virtual representation” either. This tho cuts both ways. You can’t claim privacy only when it suits you. Tho you certainly have a right to sit in a box and say ppl are no damn good.

  10. Actually we do have a right to privacy, the same way we do have a right to defend our castle, the same way we have a right to free speech, to practice a religion of our choice, to economic liberty, to bear arms. These rights are not subject to the capricious whim of the majority, but are enshrined in the constitution (and in English common law) with varying degrees of explicitness. Paradoxically, some of the most obvious rights are defined least explicitly because they are well, obvious.

  11. The entirety of wrongs performed by the NSA is they are patently unconstitutional! I don’t care what laws we passed or agreements we made. Changing our Constitution requires certain defined steps which our government danced around and adroitly avoided. They perceived a threat and acted to allow “General Warrants”. They are specifically disallowed by our 4th Amendment. Did we go through a Constitutional process of amending the Constitution? NO!

    The 4th Amendment written mostly by Madison made it quite clear that a legal Warrant must be a specific edict issued for one person. That individual must have a supposed action that violates law.

    The White House, Law enforcement and specifically NSA violates this 4th Amendment. And, they continue to do so!

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