TCS Daily

The Hyper-hyping of Privacy

By Amitai Etzioni - July 10, 2000 12:00 AM

"Privacy for this election and for the rest of the decade will be as important as health care for the nineties," a political analyst told a high-powered meeting of the Committee on Economic Development. "A hot new issue is lurking just below the political radar, ready to explode onto the American electorate," according to a recent newspaper article. "It tests off the charts!" Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster, said of the issue.

Public-opinion polls at first seem to support the view that there is a nationwide, grand privacy scare. A 1998 poll found that 88% of Americans are "concerned about general threats to their privacy today." A 1999 poll reports that 56% of all Americans consider privacy violations a major problem.

But as a sociologist who has analyzed polls for 40 years, I can see that these polls are based on cost-free questions. They are akin to asking Americans if they want more freedom, beauty or some other obvious good -- without paying any costs.

What the people really think

A better test of people`s concerns comes when one asks if they are willing to pay or give up something for greater privacy. When asked about the acceptability of programs that provide some freebies in exchange for requiring the person to divulge personal information, only a minority (on average 26%) rejected this tradeoff. If Americans consider privacy one of their birthrights, the majority seems rather willing to sell it for a pittance.

Much more importantly, millions of Americans show in their actual behavior -- rather than what they tell pollsters -- how little they really care about privacy when acting as consumers. They routinely allow marketers to keep their phone numbers and addresses, in order to avoid repeatedly providing this information when logging in again.

And many seem to like getting ads tailored to their tastes -- as a result of marketers keeping tabs on their inclinations -- rather than having to wade through catalogues. Even Janlori Goldman, a privacy advocate, has stated: "I do not care if the whole world knows my shoe size."

Other frequently cited polls show that Americans now rank violations of privacy among their most serious concerns, even higher than overpopulation and global warming. These findings in part reflect that the economy is up and crime is down, and thus issues that used to concern Americans no longer head their list of woes. Nor are we involved in a war or facing an evil empire.

However, polls cited much less frequently show a rather unalarmed public. When asked, "What is the biggest reason that keeps you from using the World Wide Web more often?" only 1% marked privacy. Asked which rights are particularly important for the American society, only 3% listed privacy, well below the right to free speech (50%) and even the right to bear arms (16%).

Moreover, there are no privacy marches on Washington or demonstrations demanding privacy in other cities. Members of Congress are not flooded with messages demanding more privacy. And newspapers do not report on pro-privacy petitions of the kind they carry about cleaning up the media, getting us out of Kosovo and much else.

Plenty of protections exist

I am not saying that we should not find privacy invasions troubling. In some areas, there have been very disconcerting violations of privacy, especially of medical information.

But the Clinton administration is implementing 600 pages of regulations to protect this kind of privacy. Some new financial privacy laws have been enacted, and still more are in the pipeline. Moreover, the Federal Trade Commission banned the collection of information about children aged 13 or younger. And states are enacting scores of privacy-protection bills.

In short, while far from solved, we are contending with key privacy-protection problems. I wish we could do half as well with national health insurance, poverty, AIDS or many other serious issues that plague us as we are doing with privacy.

Shopping is the area in which privacy is still largely unprotected. Here the harm is surprisingly limited, and the benefits to the public considerable. I admit that when I began researching a book about privacy, I was at first taken aback by the detailed profiles corporations keep on our consumption habits.

I, too, recited the favorite horror story of the privacy advocates, about a shopper at a Los Angeles store who fell and shattered his kneecap. When he sued the store, it fought back with detailed information about his purchases -- gained from his shopping-card records -- that showed that he frequently bought a lot of liquor. The implication was that he might well have fallen because he was an alcoholic. However, I later realized why this anecdote keeps being retold: There are rather few others, as long as we are dealing with shopping.

Take privacy seriously ... but be real

I also was dismayed at first about identity theft, in which someone abuses another person`s credit card or other personal information to order tons of goods for themselves. However, I learned that the damage to a victimized consumer is limited to $50, and corporations are learning to cope with this problem by, for instance, asking people for their mother`s maiden name.

I am not saying that these thefts (like all other crimes) should go unpunished and that stealing IDs would not become more difficult if we had better privacy protection. One would have to be from Mars or Venus to not realize that privacy is being diminished.

However, we are much more likely to find appropriate and realistic ways of protecting it if we can move past the hype.

This article originally appeared in the Thursday, July 6, 2000
edition of Intellectual

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