An engineer explains why you're an idiot to want privacy

Is privacy making something of a comeback? It really isn't, according to this engineer.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer on

Of course they're watching you. Don't be silly.

People say they care about certain things.

Too often, though, their reactions don't quite confirm their claims. And I'm not confining myself to politicians or even tech leaders named Zuckerberg.

One area in which claim and reality aren't in perfect harmony is privacy. Everyone claims to want it. Few do anything to achieve it.

Last week, I offered the story of my engineer friend George who was accosted in a New York park by Google operatives testing some sort of advanced Face ID for -- presumably -- the next Pixel phones.

They offered him $5 for detailed imaging of his face.

George merrily signed a waiver placed in front of him -- without reading it -- sold his face and told me this was because he doesn't really care about privacy.

This caused some readers to be aghast, and not merely at Google. Some wanted to know how George could be so blessedly cavalier.

In my role as populist bard, therefore, I put a few pointed questions to George in order to understand better his patently troubling views.

Privacy Is An Illusion. Discuss.

Is George really serious about his nonchalant attitude to privacy?

"It's not that I don't care about privacy, I just think that it's an illusion that our ego holds on to in order to not feel vulnerable," he told me.

Oh, but isn't the whole world an illusion? Even Elon Musk thinks we might be living in a simulation. And aren't we all doing our best to protect our egos from evil marauders? That's what being a world leader -- I'm sorry, I mean  a human being -- is all about.

Sadly, George sank to rationality: "A private investigator will tell you that they can basically get any piece of information about anyone if they try hard enough, as long as the person hasn't actively spent significant resources -- labor or money -- to remove their digital signatures and lock down their personal documents. It's simply too much effort for a person who isn't super paranoid."

So we should just accept our personal vulnerability? I asked George how he'd feel if a video of him prancing naked around his apartment, while holding a blue teddy bear, were to emerge on YouTube.

"I'd like to think that I wouldn't care, but that's a logical argument. I really wouldn't be able to understand who would even want to see that," he said.

That's the problem with engineers. They're logical until it's too late. Until human feelings go nose-to-nose with them and say: "Oy, what do you think you're doing?"

I feel confident that George would loathe the emergence of that video. And I'd like to offer it to the highest bidder. (Yes, humor.)

I tested George's resolve. I asked him to tell Technically Incorrect readers something excruciatingly embarrassing about himself.

Fortunately -- or not -- I'd caught him just after he'd been to a fine self-help seminar.

He replied: "One of the exercises was to walk around the city telling secrets to strangers that I've never said out loud. Another exercise was to walk across the street from a partner -- also a stranger from the seminar -- and yell out all the things I've realized about myself from the seminar. For 2 minutes with no silence. Some people laughed, some smiled, some honked their horns, some applauded, many judged."

And there it is. Many judged. As too many online have discovered, you reveal yourself at your peril, more than ever these days.

It could cost you your job and a lot more besides. 

George, though, insisted his yelling was liberating: "I started not caring about what others thought of me."

Wait till you read the comments here, George.

Forget Privacy. Look To The Glorious Future.

Because he's worked with big tech companies a lot, I asked him whether he thought they cared about privacy. He said no. Privacy is always far behind revenue in importance.

So is it a good thing if everybody can just know everything about everyone else?

"Personally, I think it would be a good thing, but that's the idealist socialist in me. If there were no secrets, then there's no leverage, and voilà, world peace," George said, being humorous. (I think.)

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If George is an idealist socialist, I'm a professional Morris Dancer. Still, it's an interesting -- and sad -- notion that we don't want people to know too much about us in case they use it against us.

The more we talked, the more it seemed George thinks you're a fool if you expect -- or even want -- privacy. He's even pleased with some of the ads he receives on the basis of Google's intimate knowledge of his inner life.

Is There Still A Line To Be Drawn?

If video of him naked appearing online wouldn't trouble him, would anything? He admitted there was a line that he thinks shouldn't be crossed.

He told me: "If, say, I had a script on their [Google's] servers and it was sold without my permission, I would think that sort of thing is on the other side of the line which would piss people off and cost the company dollars in bad press, congressional hearings, and lawsuits. But the line will move back and forth as time and lawsuits march on."

It's moving how things that would cost George money seem to matter more than things that might cause him embarrassment. That's what too long in Silicon Valley can do to you.

For George, the loss of privacy is, in fact, business as usual: "How is this any different than direct mail and Nielsen Families and magazines selling their subscriber lists back in the day? The business behavior is identical, just the details and amount of data are more, because we have computers now that can handle more details, and more details equals more accuracy, more accuracy equals less waste and more sales.... allegedly."

Then he went full Silicon Valley on me: "To me, it's part of the contract that defines capitalism. To resist this would take up too much energy that I'd rather spend on creating something. But as you can tell, the belief that it's acceptable is in me, by culture and training and life experience."

Yes, I blame my culture for all sorts of things, George. You'd be amazed how growing up in England can distort you.

George really does want everyone to stop being fools about this: "It feels inevitable and the future that it enables probably isn't going to be as terrifying as people imagine it to be."

Oh, that's a big relief.

But then he added: "Perhaps that's just my own rationalization."

So much of the tech world has been built on rationalization -- especially the rational scooping of money -- rather than human inspiration, awareness or sensitivity.

Some might wonder whether, in times to come, that will be the biggest regret of all.

But anyway, let me tell you about that time George woke up next to a stranger in a kangaroo costume ...just kidding.

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