Why Is Privacy A Tough Sell?

Wired today reports on the difficulties businesses have selling privacy services:

“Ask people if they care about the environment they’ll say yes, but they’re not willing to give up their SUVs…Ask if they care about privacy, they’ll say yes, absolutely, but I will not take down my MySpace page with my 400 friends on it because that’s how I socialize. They’re very unaware that these pages get indexed, archived, and become part of their public record…I hate to say this, because I am a big fan of privacy…[b]ut I think as a society we are redefining our understanding of what ‘privacy’ means, and unfortunately not for the better.”

Certainly, our culture’s sense of “privacy” has changed, due to the very public nature of the web and its associated media practices. Young people, most clearly, have blurred the lines between what’s private, and what’s public.

But what seems to get conflated, or maybe even misunderstood, in these discussions is the particular kinds of data we have about ourselves, and the degrees of privacy that are needed for each. The kind of MySpace public-ness is, for example, very different then the kind of financial privacy (credit cards, social security numbers, etc.) we would expect to keep protected. Wired cites a study, in fact, that found people unwilling to spend *anything* to keep certain information, such as “their weight or number of sex partners,” private. That’s very different, though, than allowing everyone to know the details of my mortgage application.

So it seems, then, what we formerly called “socially private” information, the kind that’s now posted on a MySpace page or a blog, is something we (increasingly) would actually want to make more public.

But I’m not sure there’s much evidence of a trend that people want to open up financially private data to the world. (There is definitely the possibility that people inadvertantly reveal this information, though…) Companies like Equifax build part of their business on providing consumers with the ability to track their credit reports, and, with concerns today over identity theft, their businesses have created a nearly billion dollar market (not without its problems).

Perhaps privacy is a tough sell because of the air of inevitability around things like identity — our digital selves have outgrown us, spiralling out of control among the links of banks, credit bureaus, telemarketers, magazine publishers, phone companies, retailers, and every other organization we contact in our daily lives.

If there really is no privacy anymore, if we really do need to get over it, then what’s the point of buying a privacy service?


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