Home > data science, rant > What privacy advocates get wrong

What privacy advocates get wrong

February 26, 2014

There’s a wicked irony when it comes to many privacy advocates.

They are often narrowly focused on the their own individual privacy issues, but when it comes down to it they are typically super educated well-off nerds with few revolutionary thoughts. In other words, the very people obsessing over their privacy are people who are not particularly vulnerable to the predatory attacks of either the NSA or the private companies that make use of private data.

Let me put it this way. If I’m a data scientist working at a predatory credit card firm, seeking to build a segmentation model to target the most likely highly profitable customers – those that ring up balances and pay off minimums every month, sometimes paying late to accrue extra fees – then if I am profiling a user and notice an ad blocker or some other signal of privacy concerns, chances are that becomes a wealth indicator and I leave them alone. The mere presence of privacy concerns signals that this person isn’t worth pursuing with my manipulative scheme.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at a recent Slate article written by  and entitled Take My Data Please: How I learned to stop worrying and love a less private internet.

In it he describes how he used to be privacy obsessed, for no better reason than that he like to stick up a middle finger to those who would collect his data. I think that article should have been called something like, Well-educated white guy was a privacy freak until he realized he didn’t have to be because he’s a well-educated white guy.

He concludes that he really likes how well customized things are to his particular personality, and that shucks, we should all just appreciate the web and stop fretting.

But here’s the thing, the problem isn’t that companies are using his information to screw Cyrus Nemati. The problem is that the most vulnerable people – the very people that should be concerned with privacy but aren’t – are the ones getting tracked, mined, and screwed.

In other words, it’s silly for certain people to be scrupulously careful about their private data if they are the types of people who get great credit card offers and have a stable well-paid job and are generally healthy. I include myself in this group. I do not prevent myself from being tracked, because I’m not at serious risk.

And I’m not saying nothing can go wrong for those people, including me. Things can, especially if they suddenly lose their jobs or they have kids with health problems or something else happens which puts them into a special category. But generally speaking those people with enough time on their hands and education to worry about these things are not the most vulnerable people.

I hereby challenge Cyrus Nemati to seriously consider who should be concerned about their data being collected, and how we as a society are going to address their concerns. Recent legislation in California is a good start for kids, and I’m glad to see the New York Times editors asking for more.

Categories: data science, rant
  1. February 26, 2014 at 11:04 am

    Like most social justice issues, this won’t get any traction in DC unless suburban moms and “well educated white guys” raise a stink. As one who tracks education social policy, it is noteworthy that the NYS legislature didn’t take a look at the downside of testing and the privatization of schools (aka “reform”) until suburban parents started squawking… If nerdy white guys sit on the sidelines or minimize privacy the disadvantaged will be victimized…


  2. Josh
    February 26, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    I agree completely with this only more so. That is, my one quibble is the inference (which I don’t think Cathy means but could be taken that richer people are more concerned about privacy.

    It is more that privacy is a relative luxury (compared, say, to food and shelter) and so poor people spend less resources trying (probably in vain) to get it.

    I suspect that wgersen is right in terms of political traction but that just means we need to fix our political system. Especially if we need to rely on nerdy white guys to protect the disadvantaged.


  3. February 26, 2014 at 7:34 pm

    We don’t know when and how we’ll end up being vulnerable on the web until it’s too late. Suddenly need insurance or a job? Maybe I’m not high risk but my on-line habits have profiled me as “risky” or “not employable.” Being a well-educated white guy won’t help.


  4. lmsacs
    February 27, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    Hi Mathbabe – interesting viewpoint article in JAMA online first http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleID=1838433&utm_source=Silverchair%20Information%20Systems&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=JAMA%3AOnlineFirst02%2F27%2F2014
    about advocating for use of digital footprints to gather data to help do traditional type health surveillance to focus on health behaviors and mental health. What do the data miners think about this? Thanks, Lisa


    • February 27, 2014 at 5:33 pm

      I’m no data miner but I think JAMA should be publishing a research article on this subject instead of a “viewpoint article.” Medicine, and science in general, should be a body of published knowledge. As opposed to proprietary, or worse, secret knowledge. A world in which research data comes primarily from closed-source, commercial sources frightens me.


  5. gurrfield
    February 28, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    I’d say the people interesting to spy on is smart people who could start a company and cause established “big guys” to fail. Take their ideas, patent them, if not possible, spy on their smutty surf and out it. Then no one would want to have anything to do with them.


  6. Laura
    March 3, 2014 at 10:28 am

    In what way are vulnerable people being tracked, mined and most importantly, how are they being screwed? Forgive me for not seeing it, as I’m clearly in the privileged non-target audience. But really, how can research about consumer behavior cause someone to make a bad decision? A credit card offer in the mail? That’s not very scary.

    I agree with Greg Taylor above that we just “don’t know when and how we’ll end up being vulnerable on the web until it’s too late.”

    I can assure you vulnerable people aren’t going to care about being vulnerable until an article (or better yet – a different media format that’ll reach the target audience) puts together some actual examples and strong arguments that hit home with the segment of our population that needs to change their online habits.


    • March 3, 2014 at 2:13 pm

      Not just one bad credit card offers – only bad credit card offers. Not just losing a job interview – systematically losing all job interviews (http://urbanintellectuals.com/2013/04/08/unemployed-black-woman-pretends-to-be-white-job-offers-suddenly-skyrocket/).

      Do these start making sense? Is it starting to look scary?


      • Laura
        March 3, 2014 at 2:56 pm

        The article you linked is interesting and alarming, sure. It’s sad that there is any evidence of name-based or race-based prejudice in hiring. I certainly want to see prejudice in hiring practices abolished in my lifetime.

        But is that a privacy issue? Should we all hide our race (or gender?) identities online? How would someone apply for a job without submitting their name? I mean, that would actually be cool, but that’s not what you’re advocating here, right?

        I think you have a great point in saying that those of us who are worried shouldn’t be. I guess that’s just where I’m coming from.

        What I’m not clear on is how some people are being screwed by the data mined about them. If it’s bad credit card offers and bad hiring practices then that’s discrimination. Are you saying that data allows discrimination outside of what the law protects already? Or that the laws just don’t protect against discrimination properly?

        P.S. Maybe I’m the exception, but credit card offers (in the mail or otherwise) are always a bad deal.


  7. Nathanael
    March 4, 2014 at 10:36 pm

    Rich white guys are often politically active… and subject to political attack by the NSA. So there is actually a reason for them to fear.


  1. February 28, 2014 at 9:22 pm
  2. March 2, 2014 at 4:44 pm
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