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Our evolved intuitions about privacy aren’t made for this era (psyche.co)
57 points by danielskogly 33 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 28 comments



With modern surveillance, no longer can the watched watch the watchers.

Being under reciprocal social surveillance may have been the norm for humans, meaning living in tight-knit villages or open floor-plan, multi-generation homes—situations where there's always someone else around to see or hear what you do. But so too do you hear and see what they do, meaning you (or the community) can enact social and sometimes physical consequences for snooping, spying, snitching, and gossiping.

Cameras, even one-way glass, and especially mass communication snooping makes that surveillance unilateral—an expression of bureaucratic power over the individual. We can't tell what the corp or agency is doing with our data, how it will be used for good or ill, and we have little recourse (i.e. standing in court).

If, as they claim, these new forms of surveillance are essential for national security, protecting the children, and robust economic growth, then perhaps what's missing is the ability of ordinary citizen(-journalists) to likewise watch these faceless voyeurs and powerful officials to the same degree, returning to that "norm" of reciprocal surveillance.


This misses possibly the most important aspect: Privacy is a shield for the powerless.

In your example of reciprocal social surveillance, people had reasonably similar amounts of social and physical power, and lived next to each-other.

Compare that to a drone operator and someone hiding in a cave, that learn of each-other's location. Or revealing the political preferences of those who support the party in power, and those who support the banned party. The surveillance may be reciprocal in those cases, but the results are anything but.


I might quibble that the troglodyte doesn't know the drone operator's location, but I think we agree on the larger point: privacy and surveillance are about power and vulnerability.

Surveillance increases the vulnerability of those watched and privacy decreases it.


Great comment. Who watches the watchers is an extremely important aspect of whether society evolves to something better or entrenches some form of corporate dystopian nightmare. Current outlook is not good.


>If we really care about our privacy, though, why do we share so much?

In my experience, for many it has nothing to do with choice of sharing - it's about lack of education and understanding of the internet and/or technology in general. People aren't aware of just how much data is being collected by companies (especially tech companies), who it's shared with, for what purpose it's used or that they really have no control over removing or 'deleting' it.

So I don't believe it's entirely correct to blame consumers. It's more the tech industry exploiting the lack of knowledge of consumers while hiding behind opaque policies.

> the panoptic gaze of CCTV captures our movements; social media companies scan masses of our public and private messages; and smart speakers record clips of our speech

If privacy was important to recent generations of people the NSA revelations from Snowden leaks would have caused an uprising. Whether good or bad, there seems to be a certain level of apathy or acceptance around the loss of privacy of personal data.

> Sometimes we have little choice

The bottom line. Tech companies already know everything about everyone who uses their platforms. In fact, building AI and serving advertisements relies on them collecting it.


I think this is why the Chinese social pact works so well. The majority of people are perfectly fine giving up their private sphere to the government, if the return is prosperity and economic growth, which so fare the Chinese Govt. has been able to provide. Nobody knows what would happen if that prosperity slows down, or ceases. In that case I suspect that “freedom of expression” could become a viable social currency again.

In the end it’s not that different from the social networks pact we’ve silently accepted in the west: our private sphere for shots of dopamine. The difference is what we have in return is much more fleeting, and the only ones benefiting are the social network companies getting richer and richer by trafficking our data.


I think that could be part of the reason for the growing unrest and anger in America. The prosperity side of the agreement has disappeared for many people (e.g. home ownership, ability to live off of a single spouse working a single job, opportunity to raise kids).


> That pact only looks like working working well from the outside. Travel into the mainland, get hammered with some local colleagues, they will tell you what they really think about there "benevolent leading party". Don't trust the crap the party shouts about itself in its outlets to the west.


> If we really care about our privacy, though, why do we share so much?

It could be the same principle as with small offences, such as speeding. People don't care if the punishment is severe. People only care if the chance of being caught is high.

Same with privacy. People don't care about severe consequences of a data leak. They only care if the probability of being confronted with consequences is sufficiently high.

This leads to the somewhat sad conclusion that we can educate people by confronting them with (small) data leaks.


My own thinking around this is quite simple. We want to keep secrets from people who are sufficiently close in our social circles so that the consequences of them knowing and spreading it to the people with the most obvious power over our lives.

The consequences of data collection don't relate to people within our social circles so it is much harder to be viscerally affected by it. Without that emotional drive, it's one of those things that gets pushed down the priority list in our lives.


>The consequences of data collection don't relate to people within our social circles so it is much harder to be viscerally affected by it.

This reminds me of how people discovered that their friends/family members were Stasi informants after East Germany collapsed.


Well, yes, but also, consider the NSA's LOVEINT scandals.


I think people are wrong to be unconcerned, and that governments and corporations will use this data to dominate and manipulate people.

But I think you’re absolutely right about what’s going on emotionally. People care about things like incognito mode because it hides activity from people they care about. That don’t see nameless strangers as a threat.


Most people have no idea the amount of data available about them. They may suspect in an abstract way, but this is entirely different to being confronted with the extent of your own data and understanding how it can be used against your own interests. They're also looking to how others are reacting, to see whether they should be concerned or not.

I think many Social Media Co.s have mistaken their customers' distraction and obliviousness for consent.

It reminds me of an acquaintance who made questionable tax claims one year, and didn't get audited so went a bit further each year, growing on the confidence and feeling of a forming 'norm' that came from getting away with more each year. Tax office audits in my country are pretty random, but I will always remember his ashen face when the audit finally did come.

(I have a feeling this is a known psychological effect, but I can't remember the name of it.)

So too, I'm guessing social media businesses feel that with each passing year they are accruing more implicit consent by virtue of seeing no real kickback from their users.

I feel when kickback finally comes, it will be a tipping point and their business model will be difficult to continue with, in the regulatory landscape that follows.


Yes to the obliviousness taken as consent point. It’s been awfully convenient for them to move fast and break whatever they like and if no one screams just keep on going - but that doesn’t make it right.


This author is pretending agency, self determination and power don't exist and it makes this one of the most slimy articles I've read in a minute.

> If we really care about our privacy, though, why do we share so much?

Can someone explain to me a charitable motive that could possibly be behind this article? Naivety is the best I've got but it strains credulity.

The author is posing a question that's hitting my brain like they're asking why I deserve safety and security when I dress the way that I do.


The vast majority of people grew up in, and/or are comfortable with, environments with little to no actual privacy - and actually don’t care. To your example - a large, visible, and not-going-away segment of the population sees nothing wrong with the statement you’re alluding to, and strongly believes it as it also lines up with their cultural context.

It isn’t me, and apparently isn’t you - but it is a lot of people, and as the internet has seen wider adoption, that gets more visible.


this and we also cannot rule out disinformation campaigns from special interest groups who make it a goal to get people to be okay with oppression. i am sure there are countries out there who are less free who view freer nations as an eyesore to their agenda.


For sure. There are strong arguments to be made that the culture and cultural context of a society is more often than not constructed than emergent - everything from religious leaders, to laws, to advertising campaigns strongly influence it in very visible and measurable ways (albeit not always the ones intended), and those are generally set or strongly influenced by the ‘authorities’.

Where the authorities are strongly authoritarian, you’ll definitely see the normalization and entrenchment of oppression, mobilization of society to attack those who are ‘others’ or challenge the status quo, blatant propaganda, secret police, secret courts, and many other things.

Near as I can tell, there is no modern society on earth that isn’t doing it to some significant extent.

Like an accent, it’s almost impossible to tell it even exists when you grow up in it. To someone who hasn’t looked for it, or travelled enough to see the patterns, everyone else just speaks weird.


Being under social surveillance was and is the norm for humans. The privacy of the individual is a historical exception that lastet for a few hundred years and just for parts of the population.

It once served a purpose, now its obsolete. And obviously people don't really care as long as they can imbed it and its outcomes in their personal world model or even profit from it. Which is and will be manipulated by the same agents that skim off the vastly bigger profits of that game.


The author completely underestimates the ability of the human brain to adapt. Brains have changed very little, if at all, during written history yet the way of life, daily habits and attention have changed wholesale multiple times. Brain is in fact too adaptive for history to catch up with it.

> Our concern for privacy has its evolutionary roots in the need to maintain boundaries between the self and others, for safety and security.

Safety distance from conspecifics is not privacy, most animals don't hide from view when having sex etc. In fact being out of view is anxiety-inducing since it means danger - they 're too far from the herd. Humans too, dont live like hermits, but they form tight villages. Privacy had more to do with protecting one's property (which for most of history included his family). The modern idea of privacy as independence-from-others was wholly enabled by technology which allows people to be independent from each other

Sharing is social signaling, it's what we ve done since forever


To me the issues of privacy do not come from the public information we decide to put out there, but with the difference in power between the user and the platform.

It's okay to have an Instagram page, for most it is not different than a photo album that can be easily shared. It's really cool and beautiful... the problem comes in that what I put on Instagram is not just the analog experience I believe it is but it is secretly filled with data I am probably not aware of that is then used by the company to manipulate me! And not manipulate me in a small way, Facebook has published countless articles boasting their capabilities of changing people's moods.

Our legal institutions, and our societies, are incapable of controlling the private interest of these mega-corporations and authoritarian government solutions are not much better (like Chine). And we are letting all this wealth that we generate be used not to improve our lives, not to make us happier, but to manipulate us into whatever the private sector wants!

It is impossible for us, as individuals, to fight corporations. What people want when they say they want privacy is not to shy away from others but to hide from corporations (and governments) which we know are not human, these are institutions that we fear because we see what they do with what we give them. They misuse it, time and time again. So in a way I agree with the article when it talks about our primal needs for privacy, we hide from danger, but now a days danger is represented in governments and private corporations. We don't trust these, they are dangerous bodies with interests that oppose ours.

We need more sane institutions, governments as well as a complete re-construction of the private sector so that it can optimize what we truly value and need as a society. Instead of them being optimized on a proxy that is dis embedded from the well being of society (money). Privacy is about hiding, but not hiding from the fellow but the stranger.


My god - if we can't even see that we have been engineered to give up all sense of privacy - that perhaps that was a massive factor in the drive to ensure we adopt technology - we really are in trouble!

We didn't realise what we were heading into, but it is becoming clearer. We are moving into a fascistic (corporate owned) technocratic governance system - everything we do will be monitored in the minutiae. Privacy is certainly under attack - in fact it is very close to the point that you will not be able interact with 'society' unless you agree to concede all your information. We have medical 'passports' on the way in order to enter shops, ffs.

Its a dystopian future that we have coded ourselves into. The death of privacy, sure, and also the death of individuality.


> We have medical 'passports' on the way in order to enter shops, ffs.

To be fair, this is specifically to counter the threat that antivaxxers (or more broadly irrationally harming folks) pose to the rest of society. The fact that they exist and are allowed to exist is a travesty and is the thing that should be addressed. Because such a thing would surely not be popular, we get something more mild.

I fully agree with your other points.


Handy isn't it, though?

Personally, I'm not ok with segregating people, preventing them from shopping etc. Very strange to see this being mandated by the government in this day and age.


>Very strange to see this being mandated by the government in this day and age.

How exactly is this strange? Government mandated vaccines have been around forever. The Supreme Court ruled in the 1905 case, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, that it was within the police power of a state to provide for compulsory vaccination, and ruled again that schools could require vaccination in1922. All 50 states already require vaccinations to attend public school and have for decades. Employers have been able to mandate vaccines for decades.

The government mandates every aspect of vehicle transportation, from road design, to vehicle design, driver insurance, seat belt compliance, and driver impairment, for something that kills 35k people a year. Right or wrong, for a virus that is killing over 400k people a year, I really just don’t understand how this could be seen as surprising in any way.


In fact its not strange that the government mandates things - you are right. What I should have said, is how is it right? Why should people who are excluded by the government respect or honour those rules? Should they continue to pay tax?

On what basis is it acceptable to segregate people from simple rights of existence? To exclude them so that they can't shop or work or travel? I'm not talking about people who have been found guilty of criminal behaviour.

Are you ok with the governance structure being able to exercise such total control? Especially when we know how corporate-paid lobbyists exercise such control over governments.

Again, isn't it handy that the pharmaceutical companies (which arguably have the biggest budgets of all privately held industries) are the ones that are doing fantastic business, on account of the virus?


> Why should people who are excluded by the government respect or honour those rules? Should they continue to pay tax?

I mean, you don’t have to respect them, but you have to abide them. That’s kind of the point of laws. Not being able to do anything you want is not being excluded by the government. People under 21 are excluded from bars. People without drivers licenses are excluded from driving. People without pants are excluded from eateries.

> On what basis is it acceptable to segregate people from simple rights of existence? To exclude them so that they can't shop or work or travel?

Well, they aren’t “segregating”, they are restricting access based on the choices people have made. Should I be prevented from driving because I am drunk? I have not actively hurt anyone so why should I be restricted from basic transportation because of a hypothetical possibility that I could cause an accident in the future? This is the constant balance between individual rights and the “common good” or societal safety. Should I be allowed to burn leaves in my yard during wildfire season? There is no universal right answer or magical definite line. Someone else may say that a drunk has the right to drive and the government should not interfere, and deal only with people that have caused real accidents, regardless of intoxication.

In terms of societal harm in the form of hundreds of thousands of deaths, I absolutely fall on the side of this being justified.

> Are you ok with the governance structure being able to exercise such total control?

Churchill comes to mind when he said “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” We live in a society and societies have rules. Do I like everything about government regulations and restrictions on cars? No, but I like it a lot better than how it was in the 60s, when car manufactures said they didn’t need to put safety systems in vehicles because cars were designed to be driven, not designed to be crashed.

> Again, isn't it handy that the pharmaceutical companies (which arguably have the biggest budgets of all privately held industries) are the ones that are doing fantastic business, on account of the virus?

This one I don’t even understand. Is this some sort of allusion that there is some sort of conspiracy going on? That a virus that is both deadly and contagious would eventually come around and cause a global pandemic, which scientists have been warning about for 30 years, is some sort of plan? Or is it about drug companies making money when they make and distribute a drug? I really don’t get it. I certainly think the rules and regulations around healthcare and drug companies should be changed and improved, but I don’t really see the relevance.




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