4.05.2013 | Stop being paranoid about privacy

Just … stop it. It's holding us back. From health care to gun control to social networking (personal and professional!) to electronic financial transactions. Just let people find out who you are. Unless you're famous enough (or had any bad relationships) that people would want to stalk you, you're not important enough to matter. And yes, corporations sometimes sell your personal information. And then? Were you using it anyway? Just by the fact that you exist you get direct mail targeted to your demographic. (In that sense privacy is a comforting illusion … a simple Internet search these days will get you court records, property records, etc.)

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area where technology accomplishes so much, it's odd to find that even people who work in the industry here are creeped out by privacy concerns. Who's the bad guy lurking in the shadows waiting to get you? What harm will he cause even if he does find you? Probably not much, if at all.

Worried about financial data? Generally it's guilty of being too secure to try to assuage people's fears (PayPal's restrictive policies are a good example; terrible banking authentication UIs are another). Life is short. Every minute spent filling out a form, verifying ID or fumbling with cash is an opportunity cost—time that could be better spent doing other things. The same principle applies to forms we fill out in other areas of our lives.

During the debate over health care reform I visited a town hall meeting in Northern Virginia. Though it wasn't part of the law, someone who worked in the health care industry at a local hospital was concerned that we could have smart chip IDs linked to our health care records like they do in France. Concerned! Why? She should know better. Inconsistent medical histories inevitably mean that the quality of care suffers. Filling out a new form each time you visit a different doctor may be comforting because you get to choose what to tell them. But does hiding anything mean you're getting a better quality of care? What would you want to hide from a new doctor that could improve your care?

I had high hopes for Google Health because if Americans would trust anyone with a bunch of their personal data, it would be a private corporation. But that initiative (like so many other Google projects before it) folded. And then it occurred to me—are Americans afraid of divulging personal data because they're so used to having it ruthlessly exploited by corporations?

Think of all the times you got a spam e-mail or a solicitor's phone call you didn't want because you forgot to check the right box on an opt-out form (or worse, you were opted in without your consent). Are these the kinds of abuses people are afraid of if government kept a bunch of records in a centralized database? I have yet to hear of a single kind of this abuse from the public sector, where if anything people are more accountable to audits, and general taxpayer suspicion and ire. I've worked in the public sector, and if anything people working in government live in fear of the public eye, more so than a corporation would (private property rights mean the public may never know what goes on).

Am I wrong? I'd like to hear your thoughts on this issue because it perplexes me so, and I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer. From what I can tell, government abuses of a centralized database are a work of fiction, the stuff of action movies (are we that biased by Hollywood reality?).

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