I’ve worried for years about a terrible 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. — watches you closely, it can be dangerous to deviate from the norm. Even the slightest non-conformity could have serious consequences. I wish that were an exaggeration; let’s explore why it isn’t.
Possible difficulties — most of them a little bit futuristic — include:
- Being perceived as a potential terrorist or terrorist sympathizer. That’s a biggie, of course, at least in “free” countries. Even getting on the No-Fly List is enough to pretty much shut down your travel, and hence your options in many careers. If you want to avoid such problems, it might be prudent not to:
- Visit certain websites.
- Email, telephone, or otherwise communicate with certain people.
- Use certain words or phrases in email or on the telephone.
- Being regarded as too vehement a political dissenter in general. Political dissent is deadly dangerous in too many countries around the world, and has costs even in “free” countries. (Jacob Appelbaum is one recent US example.) To avoid such problems, there are a whole lot of things you might think twice about writing, saying, or doing, and certain people it’s definitely risky to associate with or write nice things about.
- Not being regarded as a probable loyal, hard-working, accepting employee. Think about the difficulties “over-qualified” candidates have getting hired. Then consider what might happen if employers had (accurate or otherwise) psychographic profiles estimating who was most likely to stay at a job, to accept boring job tasks or long hours, or to tolerate sub-standard pay. Then consider how wise it might be to show interest in, for example:
- Other careers.
- Certain hobbies that might be construed as leading to other careers.
- Living in other parts of the country.
- Being perceived as likely to engage in socially-unapproved sexual behavior. In the United States, certain sexual choices — even among consenting adults — could cause problems with discrimination, child custody, or divorce. Elsewhere, your choice of partner could lead to prison or even death. (I don’t know exactly which shopping choices could get one identified as a possible homosexual or philanderer … but just to be on the safe side, you might not want to download any Barbara Streisand songs. )
- Being regarded as a poor health or safety risk for employment, insurance, or more. Do you like fatty foods? Extreme sports? Night clubs? Recreational drugs? Tobacco? More than a little alcohol? Fast cars? Fast women? Evidence of any of those tastes could move you up the risk charts for heart attack, accident, marital dissolution or some other outcome that an employer or insurer wouldn’t like.
And it goes on. My late mother’s favorite aunt, Genja Jonas, was a prominent photographer; indeed, the collection of her photographs I inherited is probably rather valuable. One of her specialties was photographing children. In Germany, in her day, children often ran around in the nude. Just looking into her work too closely could reasonably be regarded as a signal of pedophiliac intent.
What makes these dangers so great is the confluence of two sets of factors:
- Some basic facts of human nature and organizational behavior — policies and procedures are biased against risk of “bad” outcomes, because people (and organizations) fear (being caught) making mistakes.
- Technological developments that make ever more precise judgments as to what constitutes risk, or deviation from “proven-safe” profiles.
- There’s a bias to stick with what has been safe in the past, and not to risk variance from the norms …
- … while ever-smaller deviations from the norm are becoming detectable.
This road leads to gray, totalitarian-like conformity. Fortunately, there’s still also a path to a brighter future.
- I was making similar points back in 2008 — but I was greatly over-optimistic about the Obama Administration.
- I spelled out some mechanics of privacy-related dangers in January, 2011.