July 8, 2013

Privacy and data use — the problem of chilling effects

This is the second of a two-part series on the theory of information privacy. In the first post, I review the theory to date, and outline what I regard as a huge and crucial gap. In the second post, I try to fill that chasm.

The first post in this two-part series:

Actually, it’s easy to name specific harms from privacy loss. A list might start:

I expect that few people in, say, the United States will suffer these harms in the near future, at least the more severe ones. However, the story gets worse, because we don’t know which disclosures will have which adverse effects. For example,

Why is this uncertainty bad? Well, prudence might suggest:

And that’s hardly all. Car license plates are now heavily photographed, so you might not want to drive to a druggie part of town, or otherwise deviate too far from a boring routine. You might not want to buy anything that speaks to a risk-taking nature in the years before you apply for a mortgage. Indeed, almost anything you do in your life could, if observed, harm you sometime in the future. And by the way – almost everything you do is, one way or another, electronically observed.

Chilling effects

In law, a “chilling effect” arises when you don’t exercise a freedom (e.g. free speech) out of fear of (usually legal) consequences (e.g. a libel suit that, irrespective of its merits, would be expensive to defend). But with the new data collection and analytic technologies, pretty much ANY action could have legal or financial consequences. And so, unless something is done, “big data” privacy-invading technologies can have a chilling effect on almost anything you want to do in life.

This problem will not be averted solely through controls on data collection, retention, or analysis. My reason for that opinion boils down to:

But what else is there? Well, the full chain is collection + retention –> analysis –> use + consequences. So for information privacy theory to be useful, it must address the use and consequences of surveillance’s fruits.

Until something better comes up, I propose a principle like:

The societal benefits of using citizens’ private information should exceed the societal cost of the chilling effects such use could produce.

I hope to suggest more detail in future posts.

Related links

Comments

8 Responses to “Privacy and data use — the problem of chilling effects”

  1. Privacy and data use — a gap in the theory | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on July 8th, 2013 2:26 am

    […] first post, I review the theory to date, and outline what I regard as a huge and crucial gap. In the second post, I try to fill that […]

  2. Robert Hodges on July 11th, 2013 8:55 pm

    Your post is right on.

    A friend of mine at a large social media company who works on storage talks about enabling “the web that endures.” It’s a beautiful and chilling phrase. Unfortunately most citizens don’t seem to be very interested in exploring the consequences of having every detail of their lives stored somewhere.

  3. smarty on July 12th, 2013 12:09 am

    benefits less costs from the privacy path we choose should sum to more than the benefits less cost of the privacy path we choose not to take. Choosing increased privacy could be a ‘net gain’ within a fixed period of time but choosing decreased privacy could be a ‘greater net gain’ (in that same fixed period of time). In this case although both choises may result in a positive benefit less cost scenario (per however you measure it) it may result in slower progress. For that reason I would argue it would be a less attractive option. Hence I don’t think youre principle quite works. Additionally both options may lead to a net loss to society – in that circumstance youre principle would suggest neither more nor less (nor the same amount) of privacy should be adopted which is clearly unworkable.

  4. smarty on July 12th, 2013 12:10 am

    replace youre with your – sorry!

  5. Curt Monash on July 12th, 2013 1:45 am

    smarty,

    I’m not sure of everything you meant, but benefits-exceeds-costs should at least be viewed as a necessary condition for a public policy choice.

    And please note that a “choice” is the replacement of one policy with an alternative. There’s ALWAYS a policy, even when the policy is “do nothing”.

  6. Marco Ullasci on July 26th, 2013 4:42 pm

    […] the societal cost of the chilling effects such use could produce[…]
    I’m a bit worried by the fact that not everyone considers the chilling effects a cost but rather a benefit.
    And with “not everyone” I mean enough powerful people to make decisions in favor of big-data led privacy invasions.

    Political correctness is already putting a practical limit to the freedom of speech in a number of areas for individuals that are worried about their future.
    Having everything stored and retrievable forever will make this self-imposed limitation even more widespread.

    The panopticon is a (bad) dream of the past becoming true for the entire society.

  7. Very chilling effects | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on July 29th, 2013 12:38 am

    […] and under-appreciated danger of privacy intrusion, which in a recent post I characterized as a chilling effect upon the exercise of ordinary freedoms. When government — or an organization such as your employer, your insurer, etc. — […]

  8. What our legislators should do about privacy (and aren’t) | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on September 14th, 2013 4:08 am

    […] to sum up — the only activities I want to see chilled by electronic surveillance are the actual planning and execution of terrorist attacks.* For […]

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