Who Cares About Privacy Protections?

Privacy concerns have long been a mystery to me, and I have written about this many times. I will probably never fathom why I should give a damn if some bureaucrat knows how many bathrooms I have. The idea that “by the time the creditor has finished talking to the credit bureau, he is likely to know more about your personal life than your mother-in-law does,” strikes me as insane. Is my life reducible to a few facts and figures, even with some bits of irrelevant gossip thrown in? My mother-in-law knows what I am passionate about, how I talk, how I listen, what I like to eat, and why I love her daughter.

The quote above is from a 1971 essay by Ralph Nader, and it was in reading some of his 1970s writings recently that I was really struck by one of the several ways that the privacy mongers (privacy being basically a form of anxiety) have things backwards. Let me cite an example Nader gives of the problem, and then his analysis.

“A vivid illustration of the problems in insurance reporting is the case of two successful young businesswomen who applied for a life insurance policy required for a particular business transaction. On completion of a routine report, Retail Credit Company advised the insurance company not to issue the policy. It reported ‘severe criticism of the morals of both women, particularly regarding habits, and Lesbian activities.'”

Four pages later:
“The individual’s right to privacy of self is crucial to the functioning of our society. Suppose you walked into a courtroom and picked up a pamphlet relating everything the judge had ever done in his personal life. What would that information do to your interaction with that court? To some extent it is absolutely necessary to preserve barriers of privacy and protection about people’s lives in order to permit ordinary interaction between people, an interaction that is to a significant degree based on trust.”

Nader seems to be suggesting that everyone has a “personal life,” knowledge of which would make it impossible for us to trust them or interact with them in an ordinary way. (And we are supposed to know this universal fact and yet pretend not to know it, so that we can go on trusting.) One might be uncharitable and presume that Nader knows this because he has deep dark secrets that render him untrustworthy and that he has learned such secrets about several other people.

But the sort of secrets he cites in his examples are not at all things that make someone untrustworthy. Rather they’re things like sexual preference that seem to have in common two elements: (1) they’re secret, and (2) they’re irrelevant to the matter at hand.

If we define the personal or private life as anything that is secret, I sure as hell do not want to protect it. I want to know relevant information that people do not want me to know. I want to know that the person I’m negotiating with has lied and deceived on previous occasions.

If we define the personal or private life as anything that is irrelevant to the matter at hand, then I suggest that the ideal solution is not to protect our rights to keep it secret, thus reinforcing the idea that it is shameful and somehow relevant, but rather to fully recognize its irrelevance.

If credit bureaus engage in less discrimination against gays and lesbians today than 30 years ago, this is not because a bunch of lawyers have fought for the right to keep one’s sexual preferences secret, but because our society has started to recognize that what sort of sex you have doesn’t have anything to do with how you pay back loans.

Bill Clinton became more and more popular as the Republicans dragged the Monica Lewinsky story on and on, but he could have saved us a year of waste and nonsense by telling his secrets right away and pointing out something most of us already recognized: their irrelevance to the job of being president.

There are things I can say about myself that I often avoid saying and resent being forced to reveal. For example, I have been convicted of a serious crime. This has kept me from gaining several jobs and prejudiced many people against me. The fact that I didn’t commit the crime I was convicted of is not enough to undo the damage. So, I insist on my right to privacy. But, obviously, I don’t insist too strongly. A growing percentage of Americans have been convicted of crimes. A growing percentage of those have been exonerated. The public needs to know what is wrong with our criminal justice system, and needs to know that those who are trapped in it – often unjustly – are human. That is far more important than my privacy.

For every secret that needs to be kept, there is a bigger truth that needs to be told. Who the hell cares about privacy?