Billy Barnes is a JD candidate at the University of Toronto.
If information falls on the tenth page of Google results and nobody reads past page three, does it make a sound? Orin Kerr recently posted a suggestion for increasing your privacy online: change your name to one that already gets lots of results. Odds are good that you won’t be the most famous George Washington who ever lived. Professor Kerr’s suggestion is a joke, but it hints at the truth. Privacy is too much work.
This article began as a call to make a New Year’s resolution to manage your privacy but as I researched, I found that almost every suggestion for privacy protection was impractical or unhelpfully vague. For just one example, the website for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner recommends that we read all of our email offline. I can’t imagine that working. Is privacy worth all the effort?
It is surprisingly hard to pin down precisely why some of us are uncomfortable with companies knowing intimate details about our lives. We know that none of the companies that are collecting information about us are going to judge us in any way based on what they know. They really don’t care except insofar as it allows them to provide better services or more targeted advertising. The only time the threat become credible is when information is provided to somebody who knows you. But I have never heard of an employer refusing to hire someone or a person being ridiculed based on information from a credit card company. Instead, what normally injures people is information they post online themselves or that their friends post about them.
There are two separate ecosystems of personal information. The first is the intimate usage data being automatically collected by just about every company you interact with online or off. This is the common subject of intellectual property blog posts, laws and privacy policies. It’s the least likely to cause real harm to the average person and the hardest to guard against. The second is the content published by individuals and their friends. This includes blogs and social networks. When people talk about privacy, they tend to speak as if these two ecosystems are somehow related, but they aren’t. They affect users in different ways and must be managed differently. The first, usage data and the market for personal information, is the proper domain of the law. I believe that for the majority of users, this type of privacy is simply not worth the effort. Rather, users should focus their energy on the more accessible problem of what they publish themselves.
In the New Year, then, don’t stress about what Google knows about you (unless that’s your job) and take a few minutes to look over the new privacy settings in Facebook.