Stephen Baker

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Privacy loses every time

August 2, 2010Privacy

Monday morning, and before I'm finished my first cup of coffee, I see two stories about the fall of privacy. First, the United Arab Emirates is shutting down Blackberry data services in their corner of the Arabian Peninsula because they can't evesdrop on the heavily encrypted messages. Next, I see in the Wall Street Journal (behind firewall) that the advertising side of Microsoft, in 2008, fought back a plan that would have thwarted cookies (as a default setting) in the the Internet Explorer 8.0 browser. How could Microsoft sell ads, they argued, with a browser that keeps advertisers from learning about the Web-surfing patterns of their potential customers?

Both the UAE and Microsoft have reasons to do what they're doing. The UAE is an oasis of relative freedom in a region that's short of it. People of all nationalities work in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I was there last March. You meet Filipinos, Indians, Kenyons, Europeans, Moroccans. It's a regular UN. No place would be easier for Al Qaeda to do banking, organizing, bombing. You can even drive to the UAE from Yemen (though Google maps,for one reason or another, isn't able to give me the directions). I'm sure this move by the government angers many in the country (not least the Blackberry subscribers), but there's a defensable national security argument for it. It's at least as solid as the reasoning behind the 2001 Patriot Act in the U.S.

Microsoft also had its reasons not to interfere with cookies. It had to do with the profits in its online business, which struggles mightily against Google, among others. Given the choice between contracts from paying advertisers and appreciation of privacy-loving and non-paying Web surfers, they went with the bucks.

And that's my point. Privacy almost always loses. People say they care about it, but most of us are really like the UAE and Microsoft. Given a choice between the promise of security and privacy, we usually opt for security. (We march like sheep through the scanners at the airport, letting them oggle and grope us, and we even tolerate it when they snap, NO JOKES!)

At the same time, most of us drop our privacy concerns in a snap to save $5 at the supermarket, with a customer loyalty card, or five minutes at a toll booth. What's more, if we really cared deeply about privacy on the Internet, more of us would ditch Web mail, enable privacy browsing on our computers (and go to the trouble of typing a lot more passwords). And we'd heave the biggest surveillance machines, our cell phones, into the nearest gutter. I, for one, choose not to.

What's this all mean? We have hand-me-down notions of privacy that don't really fit our modern machines, networks and lives. In coming years, we'll see that some invasions of privacy (like cookies, in my opinion) are largely abstract. But we'll find others that are all too real. (I fear them in areas of police and medical surveillance.) For now, though, privacy loses, just about every time, to economics and promises of safety.

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