Summary: 38th Gentle Thinkers Debate (Online Privacy)

How concerned should we be about governments and corporations collecting data about us?

E.g. Wikileaks vs NSA – Both believe in gathering private information. One is a noble truthseeker. One is a filthy eavesdropper. Why the difference? When is gathering other people’s information good and when is it bad? What is the point of privacy, exactly?

Warning: This summary may cause nose and throat irritation and may have little squiggly bits out the side.

This summary is interpreted from notes taken during the first debate on this topic and may contain errors. It is not a definitive text and should be used a means of sharing and developing ideas. Edits have been made to make this summary easy to read therefore it does not reflect the actual flow of conversation.

If you wish to correct mistakes, be attributed to or contribute content, please contact me or post a comment.

More summaries can be found in the Summary Index.


Most of us are concerned about the data being collected. But why? Loss of privacy is strongly associated with authoritarian government, but so are mustaches. Correlation does not equal causation. So is it really loss of privacy that worries us, or authoritarian governments?


Why do we care about privacy? Why is it a commonly upheld value?

What is privacy?


Privacy as a component of civil liberties, or as one among many human rights.


Privacy and anonymity also grant the freedom to circumvent broken rules. “We have a moral duty to break unjust laws”.

But they don’t just let you break the unjust ones, they indiscriminately let you break any laws.


Privacy as a way to minimize cognitive load: If you have a camera over your shoulder, you are not only thinking about what you are doing, but also how what you are doing will be perceived by others. We have better things to do with our brains than to worry about this constantly. It is a waste of cognitive resources and a distraction.


It is plausible that, even without any practical disadvantages, people will suffer emotional and psychological harm from total deprivation of privacy.


Let’s question that assumption: Do people value their privacy? All the people constantly posting everything to Facebook don’t act like it.


Are we more worried about blatant political propaganda, or the subtle, little changes? For example: the switch to MyGov makes it easier to collect and cross-reference our information.


Some people are very suspicious and refuse to give out small bits of innocuous information. “Why do you need to have that piece of information for me to use this service?”


Convenience is a main driver of giving corporations our information. Just giving the information makes usage of the service quicker and easier or more tailored to you.

Nobody can realistically read all of the terms and conditions, which often includes how your data will be used. Reading EULAs is not very convenient.


How willing are people to just give information? Your gym membership form asks for your date of birth. Why do they need that? Over the phone the bank wants to confirm your identity by asking you questions. What if it’s a scam? Are people too trusting when handing out their information?


In data matching, birthdate is a very useful piece of information to identify people (eg is this Joe Blogs the same as that Joe Blogs?)


Identity fraud is a valid reason to be reluctant to provide such information.


The problem is when the data is stored in a way that is rather random and how easily it can be accessed, how it can be used.


How safe is your data? There will always be at least one hacker who is better than or one step ahead of security software and organisations.


Privacy in legal situations is necessary to empower the accused and their lawyer to build a defence, when the state has all the resources of the police and forensic teams to prosecute.


No one group or person should know everything. It squashes individuality.


How many people in the room have an audio + video recording device? All but one (13 out of 14 thinkers). That would have been unthinkable and unacceptable a decade ago.

But our phones also empower us with information. If an authority starts abusing someone, we start recording it and sharing it.


A possible utopian ideal: The current trend seems to be miniaturisation and proliferation of devices capable of video and audio recording, and generating or collecting personal data (eg phones). Imagine a world where this is taken to the extreme, and there is total transparency, not just of citizens, but of governments and corporations as well. How could there be crime or corruption if everyone was always watching everyone?


In this utopia, rules will have to become more tolerant – what is just a vice or a taboo, and what can we really never allow to happen? Everyone breaks traffic rules about once a week, and the jails aren’t big enough to hold all rule breakers. But a mass murderer would never have a chance to set off their bomb because people would know very early.


But this utopia it would result in information overload. Omniscience is not humanly possible. Currently people have access to more information than they can ever consume and they mostly ignore it.


Does this universal transparency utopia imply that deception is always bad?


Do we always assume that this loss of privacy and increasing “big data” are inevitable?


The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.


Even before the internet, there was plenty of potential to monitor and censor snail mail. How much privacy do hunter-gatherer societies really have?


The average person isn’t going to be arrested. Just like the average person in the shopping centre doesn’t need to worry about the CCTV. Is the NSA going to affect your life personally? Probably not for the vast majority.


Often criminal investigation is retrospective. A lot of CCTV is unwatched, and only after a crime has happened do people think to check if there was a camera around that might have recorded it. Similar processes might occur with online data.


No one is going to be sitting there reading your emails. It will be algorithms that filter it all down to identify a few cases for humans to review. But designing such algorithms is an extremely complex problem in itself, which is likely to have plenty of false positives and false negatives.


Authoritarian regimes start with small, insidious losses of privacy with security justification.


Increased security measures, or the sacrificing of rights, are often introduced as temporary measures. But the concern of many is that once you have something in place, it can have a lot of inertia and if you benefit from it you are going to be very reluctant to give it up (Loss Aversion). Think about toll booths. Originally they are put in place to pay back the debt incurred from building the bridge. But after decades of people being willing to pay the toll, why give up this revenue source? It is mighty tempting to just hang on to the toll booths indefinitely. By now people have adapted and forgotten what life was like without them anyway.


If you have experienced these regimes, you are more likely to sit up, pay attention, and guard your online privacy.


Data Dredging, and the Law of Truly Large Numbers: With indiscriminate mass data collection without a precise goal in mind, it gets to a point where you have so many millions of data points that very unlikely patterns and suspicious coincidences are almost guaranteed. Look for long enough and you’ll find very improbable things. Mass surveillance statistically almost guarantees plenty of dead ends, persecution of the innocent, and a waste of police resources.


Mass, indiscriminate surveillance on millions of people is likely to turn up plenty of dirty secrets that could ruin people’s lives. With millions of people spied on, even if only 0.1% have a dirty secret that is picked up on by the surveillance, that is still thousands of people. It empowers them to blackmail random people. There are always bad apples in organisations. The power of surveillance will be abused.


For example, neighbours with a grudge against you could just tip off the police to get you in jail or get some of your possessions seized.


Excessive rights of police and government agents to do whatever it takes in their operations and investigations: Is it really necessary to put them above the law?

Sometimes police need to be able to do things (or pretend to do things) in order to infiltrate organised crime circuits.


Is extremism a problem? The group could not agree on this question, or even on what qualified as “extremism”.

Assuming it is a problem, is changing the laws the best solution?


Dangerous ideas and Incitement of violence: Broadcasting stupidity, violence, or extremism.


Just because you produce media in favour of a viewpoint, are you responsible for the actions of others who hold similar views? Lumping anyone with the same ideology together is very black and white.


On the other hand, a renowned pillar of a community who is very influential, could get lots of people to do the violence for them, enabling them to do much more violence indirectly than one person ever could directly.


There’s a big difference between saying “I’m going to kill you,” and actually killing someone.


When criminals discuss specific times, dates, places and details, it makes sense to apprehend them. But if all you have done is loosely discussed a possible lofty goal of anarchy, then are you a danger? Where do you draw the line between an idea and a plan?


Pre-Crime and Thought Crime: Are we more concerned about preventing harm, or punishing evil?


All discussions about privacy seem to slide into discussion of totalitarian states, injustice, persecution, ethnic cleansing. Are they necessarily the same thing?



If knowledge is power, and your average Joe doesn’t have much power, then Wikileaks is a modern day Robin Hood of the information economy – stealing from the rich to give to the poor and redistribute power in the form of knowledge.


In which case the reason that most people seem to view Wikileaks in a relatively favourable light would be purely selfish – it gives them more power (knowledge). In that sense, we are no different to the ones at the top of the power pyramid. We hoard and protect our power(information) and make alliances with any who provide us with more of it, or who can help guard ours from being stolen.


Think about your everyday social relationships. We are selfish and hoard informational power. With benevolent intentions, people eavesdrop on their family and friends, and discuss matters behind their backs, mostly just in case someone needs help and is ashamed to say it, or to spare someone’s feelings. “Oh I don’t want to worry him,” or “he might be afraid to ask for my help.” These are sentiments expressing our preference to have more informational control than even our close friends and family. Humans routinely hide information from and gather information about even those closest to them, most often it is just in case they can use this power imbalance to help each other. But fundamentally, both allies are engaged in this constant privacy-spying struggle out of a belief that it is better for you to have more information than others. You ultimately trust yourself with information/decision-making-power more than others.


Some internet corporations eg Google are working to improve user security and preventing interceptors from stealing your information. Now the NSA and others will have a much harder time getting your data. But Google are still gathering and holding on to as much as possible themselves.


Facebook experiment: By agreeing to the terms of service, technically people agreed to the marketing experiments that Facebook runs without its users’ knowledge. Should we be worried? Why are people worried about the one that did come to light, considering it was relatively benign? Is it just the fact that Facebook can do it in the first place?


The Facebook experiment wasn’t significantly different to normal psychology experiments. You can’t tell your participants what you are looking for otherwise you will bias their behaviour and ruin your results. The only thing experimenters get from you is consent to be in the experiment, and Facebook got that. All psychological science relies on deception. So why the big deal? Are we worried about mundane psychology experiments too?



One member of the debate had always left the curtains in her living room open. But then a friend felt it was very important to close them – Why? Who cares about those people walking past. You sacrifice the view. After seeing news about terrorists she started to think that maybe she should close the curtains.


People are disproportionately afraid of sharks, just like terrorists. These two things make good news stories because they are sensational and terrifying. But more people are killed by falling coconuts annually than by shark attacks. The scariness of something is not always determined by its actual lethality. Often the two are unrelated.


Regardless of where you stand on this issue, we are emotional animals and if you are directly affected by an act of terror then you are likely to be angry at those responsible and to demand that action be taken. Similarly if you are directly affected by a traffic accident you are more likely to be demand more strict traffic regulations in that area. But as upset as you might be, accidents happen.


The world is messy and complex and imperfect. It gets to a point where stricter traffic rules are impractical. If you are chasing a zero-tolerance policy on road deaths then you won’t stop until you have speed limits of zero kilometres an hour. A zero-tolerance policy on crime is untenable. So at some point you just have to ignore the upset people demanding impractically strict regulations.


Sharks and terrorists are good examples where the actual number of deaths is so low, and the measures needed to push them down lower are drastic and cause more harm than good. The cure is worse than the disease. Like culling sharks.


Some members thought that this analogy is very black-and-white, and that this situation isn’t like having 0kph speed limits, but more like finding a risky area and changing the speed limit from 80 to 60. The counter to this was that the number of deaths annually in Australia due to terrorism is already very nearly zero. We are already at the point of diminishing returns for even more extreme costs.


Whenever anyone raises the point that a zero-tolerance policy is untenable, or by discussing the risks and tradeoffs of death statistics, they risk appearing very callous.


Most puppies are raised in loving families and grow up to be happy dogs that run eagerly up to strangers for affection. But some puppies are abused and grow up to be cynical, aggressive dogs that bite any stranger that comes near. But the vast majority of people will pat the dog, and only very few will kick it. So which puppies are being naive and which are being paranoid?


Is there an analogy with humans? If we leave the curtains open and happily give our information on forms, is it because we have been pampered puppies? Are most Facebook users naive puppies because of their comfortable life? Or is it true that you are more likely to get a tummy rub than a punt?



Misc Bits


Australia used to be more multicultural – people didn’t say “I’m a French Australian”. Now they do. Other members of the group disagreed that there has been any such change over time in this trend.

This may suggest that increasing tribalism may be due to increasing fear.


A Most Wanted Man – Movie [IMBD]


No Place to Hide by Glen Greenwald [Text Inspectors Book Review]


New national security laws would send journalists and whistleblowers to jail [News Article]


New powers granted to ASIO making them exempt from prosecution for breaking a wide variety of laws [Government Website] [News Article] [News Article]


The proposed internet filter for Australia



A member cited some quotes from influential texts and people that may offer some perspective on the topic:

Bernays quote: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country” Propaganda, p37



From an interview with psychologist Gustave Gilbert in Hermann Göring’s jail cell during the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials (18 April 1946)


Göring: Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood.

But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.


Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.

Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

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