Neil Richards, ‘Four Privacy Myths’

Any discussion about privacy today inevitably confronts a series of common arguments about the futility of privacy in our digital age. “Privacy is Dead,” we hear, and “people (especially young ones) don’t care about privacy.” What’s more, privacy just protects bad behavior because those of us with “nothing to hide have nothing to fear.” And anyway, the argument goes, new privacy laws would be bad policy since “privacy is bad for business.”

There are other common claims, but these four are perhaps the most common. They are also myths, and in this essay I show why. First, privacy can’t be dead because it deals with the rules governing personal information; in an age of personal information, rules about how that information can flow will be more important than ever. Second, people (and young people) do care deeply about privacy, but they face limited choices and limited information about how to participate in the processing of their data. Third, privacy isn’t just for people with dark secrets; it’s for all of us because information is power and personal information is personal power. Finally, privacy is not always bad for business. One of the best hopes for meaningful privacy protection in the future is for businesses to compete on privacy, and there is some evidence that this is starting to happen.

My goal here is not just to be contrary. I hope instead to clear away some of the confusion surrounding the way we talk about privacy. When we do that; when we are clear about what privacy is and why it matters, we can start to talk constructively about the kinds of legal and social rules we want to govern personal information in the information age. We are experiencing an information revolution as powerful and disruptive as the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. We need to think and talk about how to harness this revolution’s great power while minimizing as many of its costs as we can. Or we can continue to believe the myths about privacy. But if we do that; if we think about privacy as outdated or impossible, our digital revolution may have no rules at all, a result that will disempower all but the most powerful among us.

Richards, Neil M, Four Privacy Myths (April 22, 2014). Revised form, in “A World Without Privacy?” (Cambridge Press, Austin Sarat, ed. 2015), forthcoming.

First posted 2014-04-25 04:58:26

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