March 15, 2011
I heard a report on NPR about an auto insurance company giving drivers the options of putting GPS tracking devices on their vehicles to lower insurance rates by as much as 30%. The idea is that, for example, the device could confirm to the insurance company that the car wasn’t being used in high risk situations, such as commute traffic. Safe driving situations would be rewarded with lower rates.
This made me wonder how much money could be saved by creating an entire city with no privacy except in the bedroom and bathroom. I will stipulate in advance that you do not want to live in such a place because you’re an urban pirate. You want the freedom to do “stuff” that no one ever finds out about. I get it. This is just an economic thought experiment.
Although you would never live in a city without privacy, I think that if one could save 30% on basic living expenses, and live in a relatively crime-free area, plenty of volunteers would come forward.
Let’s assume that residents of this city agree to get “chipped” so their locations are always known. Everyone’s online activities are also tracked, as are all purchases, and so on. We’ll have to assume this hypothetical city exists in the not-so-distant future when technology can handle everything I’m about to describe.
This city of no privacy wouldn’t need much of a police force because no criminal would agree to live in such a monitored situation. And let’s assume you have to have a chip to enter the city at all. The few crooks that might make the mistake of opting in would be easy to round up. If anything big went down, you could contract with neighboring towns to get SWAT support in emergency situations.
You wouldn’t need police to catch speeders. Cars would automatically report the speed and location of every driver. That sucks, you say, because you usually speed, and you like it. But consider that speed limits in this hypothetical town would be much higher than normal because every car would be aware of the location of every other car, every child, and every pet. Accidents could be nearly eliminated.
Healthcare costs might plunge with the elimination of privacy. For example, your pill container would monitor whether you took your prescription pills on schedule. I understand that noncompliance of doctor-ordered dosing is a huge problem, especially with older folks.
Without privacy you would also begin to build a database of which drugs are actually working and which ones have deadly side effects. Every patient’s history would be meticulously and automatically collected. The same goes for detailed diet and exercise patterns. Healthcare today involves an alarming amount of educated guesswork. In time, with a total lack of privacy, we’d know precisely which kinds of choices have better health outcomes.
Now imagine that your doctor has a full screen of your DNA so together you can modify your lifestyle or healthcare choices to avoid problems for which you are prone. This city would need to have universal healthcare to make this work. No one would be denied coverage because of an existing or potential condition.
Employment would seem problematic in this world of no privacy. You assume that no employer would hire someone who has risky lifestyle preferences, or DNA that suggests major health problems. But I’ll bet employers would learn that everyone has issues of one kind or another, so hiring a qualified candidate who might later become ill will look like a good deal. And on the plus side, employers would rarely hire someone who had a bad employment record, as that information would not be as hidden as it is today. Bad workers would end up voluntarily moving out of the city to find work. Imagine a world where your coworkers are competent. You might need a lack of privacy to get to that happy situation.
Public transportation would be cheap in this city of no privacy. Once you know where everyone is, and where everyone wants to go, you can design a system that has little wasted capacity. That means lower costs.
Now let’s say that your house is aware of your location and even your patterns of activities. Smart systems in the home can turn off your lights whenever a room is unoccupied, power down your computer as needed, and generally manage your power consumption smartly. And if you insisted on being an energy hog, your neighbors would be aware of it. Studies have shown that peer pressure has a huge impact on conservation. It’s not as bad as it sounds; if your neighbor is elderly, and using a lot of energy for extra heating, you would understand. In most cases your neighbor’s excessive energy use would have a perfectly good explanation.
At tax time, you’d be done before you started. All of your financial activities would be tracked in real time, so your taxes would always be up to date.
Advertisements would transform from a pervasive nuisance into something more like useful information. Advertisers would know so much about your lifestyle and preferences that you would only see ads that made perfect sense for your situation.
This lack of privacy would extend to businesses as well, although the better description in this case would be transparency. As a consumer, you’d know where to get the best prices. You’d know how long the wait is at your favorite restaurant. And you’d know how every consumer felt about his experience with every business.
When you considered applying for a new job, you’d have access to the latest employee opinion survey for that business. Bad employee practices would be driven out and best practices would more easily spread.
Confusopolies wouldn’t be tolerated in this city. Confusing pricing plans are a weasel method of hiding information from consumers. If a company wants to offer cell phone service, or insurance, or banking, in this city they have to meet standards for pricing clarity.
On the personal side of things, a complete surrendering of privacy means it’s always easy to locate and hook up with people who have similar interests and similar schedules. Dating, and every other social activity would become far easier. And cheating would be nearly impossible.
You worry about the slippery slope of zero privacy. The government could easily abuse this information. But that problem is somewhat minimized because the situation is limited to a single city, and the residents can simply leave if they don’t like how things are going.
I know you don’t want to live in that city. I’m just curious what sort of price, in economic terms, and in convenience and in social benefits, we pay for our privacy. My guess is that it’s expensive.