Another look at privacy

Doug Johnson, Sept 04, 2013
Commentary by Stephen Downes

Doug Johnson quite rightly points to the other side of the privacy debate - the good you get from giving up some privacy. For example:

  • Maybe you shared your medical history with your doctor and that allowed him to treat you more effectively.
  • Maybe you put your personal information on an online dating service and it helped you find the love of your life.
  • Maybe you showed your past tax returns to your bank and it helped you secure a mortgage to your dream house.

The problem, he argues, happens when "the government has privacy and you don't. " And these are all fair points. And these are all good things. But what's missing in his discussion is the distinction between volunteering data in order to improve your life, and in government or companies taking data in order to discriminate against you. Thus, for example, consider:

  • Maybe your insurer read your medical history without telling you and refused you because you once smoked
  • Maybe your dating preferences were accessed by an employer who ruled you out because you were 'promiscuous'
  • Maybe the bank secretly read your tax returns and denied you a loan because of it

More - what happens when these disclosures become common? What if you are required to give your full medical history to all medical professionals and insurers, or your dating information (and all social media passwords) to employers, or your tax returns to banks? It's not simply about whether or not they spy on you - it's about how much right you have to refuse to disclose, and what consequences you suffer for that.

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