There are only two reasons to have privacy and both of them involve dysfunction. You might want privacy because…
1. you plan to do something illegal or unethical.
2. to protect you from a dysfunctional world.
I think we can agree that if the ONLY reason for privacy were to make it easier to get away with crimes and unethical behavior, society would be better off without privacy. So let’s ignore the first category because it is only useful to criminals and scumbags.
The second category is more fun. My hypothesis is that in every situation in which you can think of a legitimate use for privacy you will find that the root problem is a lack of information about something else. My hypothesis is that if you fix the root problem, society no longer needs nor cares about privacy, and that is the best situation of all.
For example, let’s say you have a medical condition and you would prefer that your employer not be aware of it. Is that ethical behavior? I would argue that it is unethical to withhold that information if you have a reason to think it will impact your employer in the future.
But let’s say you know your medical condition will NOT impact your job performance but you fear that your boss will discriminate against you anyway. That situation feels like a legitimate use for privacy. But imagine a world in which all employees know the track record of every potential boss, sort of like Yelp for managers. If you add that information to the mix, potential employees will avoid bad managers, or at least keep the bad ones under control, and that removes some need for privacy. No boss wants a Yelp-like review saying he fires people because they have treatable cancer.
You can also alleviate some of the privacy risk in the employment realm by having better information about job openings. In the United States, we have plenty of jobs unfilled because of an information gap. If we solve that situation with better information an employee with a medical condition will have more options. Perhaps a work-from-home job would be a better fit for both the employee and the employer.
Let’s pick another example.
Suppose you have some non-mainstream sexual preferences that you prefer to keep private. I would argue that this is an information problem not a privacy problem. If you remove the magical thinking about our bodies and our alleged immortal souls, we are nothing but moist robots pushing buttons and seeing which combinations feel the best. I think you can educate away any shame about people’s sexual preferences. The ubiquity of Internet porn is making that happen now. Twenty years ago if someone asked you if you watched porn you probably lied and said something such as “I don’t need it.” Today if a male says he doesn’t enjoy Internet porn at least occasionally he is presumed to be a liar.
Now let’s assume that in exchange for losing your privacy about your non-mainstream sexual preferences you improve your odds of satisfying those itches by a factor of ten. Once the world can see your preferences, people who match up with it will be drawn to you. Now instead of dressing as a “furry” in the privacy of your home, you can easily find likeminded people in town to join you. Your loss of privacy makes your life far better, at least on the weekends. It seems to me that gays have followed this path, cleverly giving up their personal privacy in order to gain power, respect, legal rights, and access to potential partners. The history of the gay rights movement is probably the best example of privacy being the problem and not the solution.
Most of you fear losing privacy to the government because that invites abuse. But here again the root problem is a lack of government transparency. I’m a little bothered that the government records all of my conversations, but I agree that it might make me safer. However, the fact that the government didn’t tell me it was taking my privacy is unforgiveable and in my opinion impeachable. As a practical matter, I don’t see how a dysfunctional and corrupt government can heal itself and become more transparent. But in principle, I think you can see that adding transparency to the government process would remove a citizen’s need for privacy.
If a government employee decides to snoop into my personal data, I want an automatic email that gives me a link to see everything about that employee. If he sees my stuff, I can see his. And he will have a hard time getting a job once he is known as a creeper. So here again, adding information to the system reduces my need for privacy.
My larger point is that society should not be looking for ways to maintain privacy. It should be looking for ways to make privacy unnecessary. We will never be free until we lose our unnecessary secrets and discover we are better off without them.
I know this sort of topic gets massive down votes because you don’t want to risk losing privacy. But please do me a favor and rate this post on the entertainment value alone. I’m trying to gauge how interesting this topic is to you. Thank you!
Co-founder of CalendarTree.com
Author of this book