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Revisiting Why I’m weird about privacy

Since I wrote Why I’m weird about privacy over a year ago, it’s become one of the more unusual things I’ve published here.

My posts generally break down into three buckets: useful information, light personal trifles, and heavy, thoughtful essays. Why I’m weird had a bit of each, and it generated a similarly mixed response. Strangers discussed it online more than friends, but friends asked about it offline more than my other essays, and they engaged with the practical info and tips just as much as the deeper ideas, assuming it had any to begin with.

I enjoyed writing it, and when I re-read it now, it holds up: I’m still weird in all the same ways. However, the world itself is changing. Online privacy concerns loom ever larger in the public consciousness, including behavioral tracking, re-identification, and the lopsided balance of power we feel information-rich companies like Google and Facebook hold over us. Europe is leading the push for a “right to be forgotten”, a seductively compelling idea that unfortunately may raise more questions than it answers.

There may not be many truly new ideas, but the volume is definitely getting louder, and I’ve enjoyed the newfound attention to privacy and big data from researchers across many fields. Here are a few standouts:

  • Daniel Solove, a law professor at GWU, has been a leading thinker on privacy and law for decades. His book Nothing to Hide, based on his academic work, thrusts privacy forward as a cornerstone of healthy civil society, something to be promoted for its wide ranging benefits and not just defended to pacify a few hand-wringing luddites.

  • Information theorists have demolished any hope of digging ourselves out of these holes with de-identification alone. Cynthia Dwork‘s Differential Privacy in particular has emerged as a crushing incompleteness theorem, proving that true de-identification is impossible in any formal sense.

  • People from academia and industry are not only talking about privacy and big data, they’re actually listening to each other. I’ve appreciated the newly explicit tradeoff between privacy and public goods that come from data mining, such as medical research, governance reform, and tackling climate change. When we look at these questions as tradeoffs, and honestly weigh all sides, we’re more likely to land in a halfway decent place.

On a lighter note, my new checks came in the mail yesterday! I’ve been gradually moving accounts from my name to my LLC’s, and the financial services are easily the most critical. I’m just a few steps away from closing the accounts in my name entirely. I’ll soon be able now move money around without any visible connection to my name, address, or any other PII. Woot!

Don’t get too complacent out there. You might be the next friend I convince to start a shady LLC or hide your movements. Mwahahahaha…


4 thoughts on “Revisiting Why I’m weird about privacy

  1. Bruce Schneier’s recent article Our Internet Surveillance State is another great followup. He observes and summarizes that the Internet and supporting technology have driven an unprecedented, near total loss of privacy over the last few decades, which we’ve noticed, especially recently, but haven’t really been able to stop.

    Maintaining privacy on the Internet is nearly impossible…In today’s world, governments and corporations are working together to keep things that way…So, we’re done. Welcome to a world where Google knows exactly what sort of porn you all like, and more about your interests than your spouse does. Welcome to a world where your cell phone company knows exactly where you are all the time. Welcome to the end of private conversations, because increasingly your conversations are conducted by e-mail, text, or social networking sites.

    And welcome to a world where all of this, and everything else that you do or is done on a computer, is saved, correlated, studied, passed around from company to company without your knowledge or consent; and where the government accesses it at will without a warrant.

    Welcome to an Internet without privacy, and we’ve ended up here with hardly a fight.

  2. I don’t blame you for taking your privacy seriously. I am, however, baffled that you have a bank account and credit cards.

    Banks are the eyes and ears of the Deep State. Call it Leviathan or call it ZOG, you can’t get off the grid if your “friendly financial institution” is giving them a real-time feed of every scrap of information they can gather about you from your spending habits. I would note that, since you specifically mentioned using a credit card solely for fuel purchases, you’ve handed them all the information for them to make a very neat map showing them your work location, probable work schedule, and places you frequent. You gave them all of this for–a “credit rating?”

    I am forty-five years old. I have never had a bank account or a credit card, which I get gladder of with every passing year that the nation I was born into grows more to resemble the USSR that my grandparents fled. I have to make some choices that other people don’t have to, but I get by, and I am comfortable with the choices I’ve made.

    I meet few enough people who want to be free. You just need to get the rest of the way off the grid. You can never be free if you live in a fishbowl. Join us off the grid. Like Blank Reg, we’re the last of the free men.

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