Search and Privacy

People use Google and Yahoo! throughout their daily lives – they need to know how to get from point a to b, need to find ecommerce sites, need to search friends’ blogs, need to learn how to cook fish, and have (generally) grown used to having the equivalent of electronic encyclopedias at their fingertips at all times. I’m not going to bother addressing concerns that this might be detrimentally affecting how people learn to retain information (i.e. as information is increasingly retained as search strings rather than as info-articles) but want to instead briefly consider how search intersects with privacy.

We hear about the need to protect our private information all of the time. ‘Shred your bank statements’, ‘be wary of online commerce sites’, ‘never share personal information on the ‘net’, and other proclamations of wisdom are uttered in print and video on a regular basis which are, in most cases, completely ignored. Proponents of the commercialization of privacy use this as definitive proof that citizens really don’t care about their privacy like they did in days gone past – people are willing to give up their names, addresses, phone numbers, and other personal information to receive services that they want. In light of this regulators should just butt out – the market has spoken!

What few people realize is just how pervasive data aggregation is or the substantial commercial value their data holds. When we grew up talking on rotary phones (yes, I’m young, but still old enough to remember using them!) it was apparent that technology wasn’t exactly seamlessly integrated – it was slow and awkward to even make a phone call, let alone transcribe the conversation. What’s more, the costs and burdens of surveying all of society, along with moderately effective analogue privacy archetypes, limited the dangers of society entering a digital panopticon.

Digital communications reshapes how privacy has to be approached – our previous archetypes are not easily or effectively translated into digital environments. While I don’t claim that we live in a digital panopticon right now, or that we necessarily will, digitization does provide an very easy way for societies to slide into panoptic states, where all citizens’ actions are surveyed, analyzed, and processed by computer algorithms – humans are no longer required for the majority of aggregation and analysis. Some privacy proponents will use the fact that computers rather than people will sift through digitized information as a triumph of privacy – machines don’t care who you slept with or that you’re married and using a dating service. Moreover, under digital surveillance individuals will never realize that they are being surveyed, and corrections can be made to faulty algorithms without surveyed individuals experiencing a dimishment of their autonomy or liberty. Digitization of communication is a win-win situation!

Except it’s not.

When you aggregate information a series of events occur: (1) you are situated in categories that you cannot critically evaluate, legitimize, or resist; (2) you are assumed to be potentially guilty, rather than innocent; (3) there is an increased probability that you will be mistakenly charged for something you did not do, or that you are charged because someone happens to discover that you broke the law – this charge would not have been laid without aggregating data in your digital dossier.

Search companies like Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft (does anyone actually use their search?),, and AOL all have privacy policies that are ‘improving’ according to recent media proclamations. Data is being stored for shorter periods of time (though almost always longer than a year) and there are meager anonymization policies for all searches. This clearly means that citizens are better off now than they were a few years ago, right? Wrong, though perhaps not for the reasons that might come to mind.

Whenever you read about privacy, it’s important to consider the light that it is being cast in. Press Esc, a community based reporting group, reports that the president of the Center for Technology and Democracy (CDT) said the following in light of a study of search engine privacy policies:

“We hope this signals the emergence of a new competitive marketplace for privacy . . . By themselves, these recent changes represent only a small step toward providing users the full range of privacy protections they need and deserve, but if this competitive push continues it can only stand to benefit consumers” (Source, emphasis mine)

Citizens’ privacy protections are not improving – consumers’ privacy protections are. Citizens are protected by law, which is a legitimized coercive force that citizens see themselves as authors and addressees of, whereas consumers are ‘protected’ by the profitability of possible privacy regulations. In addition to this, market privacy proponents would have you believe that the changes in search data retention are positive – they show that the privacy marketplace is becoming more competitive. This is also untrue. When you negotiate with another citizens both parties might be equals. Consumers are not equals to corporations – consumers only have as much power to negotiate with corporations as they have money in their pockets and, as Habermas notes, money cannot be politicized.

Without developing stronger privacy protections for individuals suited for the digital era it is increasingly unlikely that citizens will be able to trust the communicative mediums that they are being enmeshed in. Communication technologies simultaneously expand the scope of possible communications while increasing markets of efficiency, while also operating as instruments in an ever-widening corporate surveillance apparatus.

Don’t buy corporate privacy policies as real replacements for privacy laws that are made to reflect social privacy norms – corporate policies and the shills that advocate on their behalf don’t respect your dignity, your intelligence, or your values. If you value free speech and democracy, hold to the principles of free speech, not commercialized speech, and speak against the crude approximiations of the norms of free speech to the metric of capitalist markets. Rights come with duties and obligations – one of them is standing up to interests that want to take them away from you.

Attend to your duties.