Data gains value in volume

February 17, 2020

Mozilla runs a privacy index scoring consumer products on a scale from Not Creepy to Very Creepy, and I think they do a fairly good job of judging products and “brand value”. Apple products tend to rate highly (All rated products lying between A little creepy and Somewhat creepy at the time of writing this) and Facebook products do the worst (Their one product is the lowest ranked on the list). I like this list because they seperate security from privacy, and is well explained for lay people. It does assume a threat model that is specifically beneficial to Mozilla. I personally think that would be an improvement for most people.

However what I think is outside the scope of that list is why we value privacy at all. This is a tumultuous discussion, since nobody really agrees on what privacy even is, let alone why it’s valuable. Many philosophers have different reasons: Is it the ability to control your personal information? Is it valuable because intimacy is valuable and without privacy there can be no intimacy? Is it a defense measure for protecting our own attention and the attention of others on us?

I’m gonna assume that you have a reason to defend privacy, and not talk about that scope either, for now. Let’s take a little trip to the TECH INDUSTRY™ and see how most of the biggest companies in the world currently operate.

Most people conceptualize of their relationship with technology companies in individual terms. They provide personal data to owners of services that then find some way to monitize it, often by selling or leasing it to third parties (this includes advertising). Conceptually it looks something like this.

what does happen

However that’s just one story. Another story is about all the data breaches that have become a common phenomenon in the industry. If you don’t look too closely it’s sort of hard to tell apart.

what could happen

But these pictures are from the perspective of the user. If we were instead to take the position of the owners, it would look something like this

(picture of owner’s perspective here)

One of the more prominent example of this is mobile phone tracking used by Google and Apple which tracked user location using Wi-Fi MAC addresses. So regardless of whether you trusted Google or Apple (or neither) with your personal information (is a Wi-Fi MAC address personal? It certainly is a piece of identifying information. Your real time loction is certainly personal information. Does that effect how valuable a Wi-Fi MAC Adress is?) you couldn’t control it because those around you who made different decisions also sold out your information, along with their own. Remember, this isn’t about you.

This is what we miss when we talk about privacy and surveilance in individual terms. The big picture. It looks maybe something like this.

most of the things


idea: discussing surveillance and how we frame the privacy “debate” in the wrong dicotomy, helping those that surveil us

for: anybody that owns a “smart” device or uses the internet (This affects you, but it isn’t about you)

why: too often i still continue to hear smart people talk about the “individual privacy vs convienece” trade off one must decide upon when choosing what devices they are okay with using. this framework is totally insufficent to talk about the implications of the dragnet surveillance culture that exists today and fundamentally misunderstands how data is used and why so much of it is being collected.