The privacy paradox: The privacy benefits of privacy threats

The domestic and international debate around privacy issues often overstates the negative impacts of new technologies relative to their privacy benefits, argue Benjamin Wittes and Jodie Liu. Many new technologies—whose privacy impacts we frequently fear as a society—actually bring great privacy boons to users. Wittes and Liu assert that society tends to reap the benefits of privacy without much thought while also tallying and wringing its hands about the costs. People have privacy today with respect to so many types of content, they observe, for instance in the areas of medical information, politically sensitive publications and purchases, erotic materials, and secret communications. And such privacy is the result of, paradoxically, a series of technologies, which are the subject of endless anxiety among commentators, scholars, journalists, and activists concerned about—ironically enough—protecting privacy in the digital age.

In this paper, Wittes and Liu argue that how we balance the relative value of different forms of privacy is a function of how much we fear the potential audiences from whom we want to keep certain information secret.

Some basic principles these authors propose regarding the nature of privacy are as follows:

  1. Most new technologies often both enhance and diminish privacy depending on how it is used, who is using it, and what sorts of privacy that person values.
  2. Individual concern with privacy often will not involve privacy in the abstract, but rather vis à vis specific audiences – that is to say that the question of privacy from whom matters.
  3. At least some modern technologies that we commonly think of as privacy-eroding may in fact enhance privacy from the people in our immediate surroundings.

From Google searches to online shopping to Kindle readers, the privacy equation is seldom as simple as a trade of convenience for privacy. It is far more often a tradeoff among different types of privacy, Wittes and Liu suggest. In conclusion, the privacy debate does not pay much attention to aggregated consumer preferences as a metric against which to measure privacy, and the authors venture to suggest that it should.