Point/Counterpoint: Privacy

Ben Thompson has a great counterpoint today about an experiment on data tracking ran by the New York Times. (If you haven’t already read the Times piece, it’s fascinating: a dystopian dive into all the ways our activity is tracked online. It’s also a lot of fear mongering.)

Using his own site and its corresponding scripts and so-called “trackers” as an example, Thompson makes the point that how we think about privacy online is too narrowly defined:

This narrow critique of Manjoo’s article — wrongly characterizing multiple resources as “trackers” — gets at a broader philosophical shortcoming: technology can be used for both good things and bad things, but in the haste to highlight the bad, it is easy to be oblivious to the good.

I was reminded of a New Yorker piece from last year that argued what we consider to be “private” is fluid: at one point, mail was considered so private that postcards were considered scandalous.

I mostly agree with Thompson’s critique, especially the notion that what data we give access to and what we consider private will always come with a certain set of ethical trade-offs: sometimes more access to data is a tangible good.

I would also love to see more public understanding about what data is good for. As someone who comes from a digital-political background for example, I’ve mostly rolled by eyes at the fear-mongering over the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal. Yes, they shouldn’t have had access to that kind of personal user data. But is that what put the Trump campaign over the finish line? Hardly.