Privacy paranoia dramatized

The German Consumers’ Union—funded by the German government—has put out a video warning internet users about their privacy under a campaign called Surfers Have Rights. You don’t need to speak a word of German to get the gist:

(At the end, the text says: “You do this every day … on the internet.” And the shopper is asking simply, “Excuse me, where do I find…? The store clerk needs no translation.)

The German blog Netzpolitik thinks it’s a nice video. But Martin Weigert at Netzwertig has real concerns. The video “does but than spread distrust,” he says, arguing that even the most trivial data that “has the value of a dropped sack of rice in China” (must be an idiom) is made to seem drastically overvalued. The clip presents consumers as helpless, persecuted by their cohort. “What message does this convey? Mistrust everyone and everything.”

Hmmm. One would think that the German government would be somewhat sensitive to some irony there since, in earlier form, it was quite effective at making everyone mistrust everyone.

But the metaphor is hardly just German. Last week in Congress, Sen. Jay Rockefeller pulled out the overused trope that navigating the internet is like shopping in a mall, being watched in every move by “a machine” (very Orwell, that). The Byron Dorgen revealed a bit too much, I think, when he extended the metaphor to wonder whether, when going to the ladies’ lingerie department, onlookers would wonder whether you were really buying some for your wife or…. “That’s a really good analogy, I think, to what is going on on the Internet today,” said Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

No, it’s not. You are already being watched in the store. Stores have cameras watching you. They track what you buy via your credit card and frequent-shopper cards. They have floorwalkers and clerks who see what you buy. Fellow shoppers can see what you buy. So the hell what? So you like bananas. It’s a sickness in the mind of the beholder to imagine you doing something bad with the fruit.

The German clip and the Congressional “debate” reveal that the essential argument about privacy is too often purely emotional. You may — and do — go about your shopping every day feeling quite fine about it but here are government officials who want to creep you out. Government officials who have the power to creep us out in plenty of other ways. And now The Wall Street Journal is continuing the creep-out (odd, since they’d usually be the ones for business freedom against government regulation… hmmm).

In neither exposition is there any discussion of actual damage and actual danger, just nonspecific creepiness. Thus Netzwertig worries about the public’s attitude toward the internet and technology itself. I do, too. I will argue in my book that we need strong protection for privacy especially against bad actors — but I’ll go the extra step and try to define privacy and define the danger for unless we do that, all we’re doing is summoning boogeymen with warnings of nonspecific creepiness. And then I’ll argue that what we should be spending time understanding how this new world works and finding the opportunities in it because its progress is inexorable.

: LATER: Here’s an equivalent EFF video (in English):

I ask, what’s the great harm of giving me couch ads when I’m looking for a couch? Would I rather have bra ads when I can’t use them? Where’s the harm?

  • fk

    I am German, and I think it is bullshit. Blurry message (who is the victim? who is responsible? What exactly are my rights? To button up my trousers?), bad spot.

    “A dropped sack of rice in China” is indeed an idiomatic phrase and stands for something nobody is interested in at all.

    • Well I´m German, too. I think you´re right! What are we in Germany afraid of`? Mighty Google, stealing our identity? Or Facebook doing the same?

      One major problem is that our state officials have no clue what´s really going on in the internet and they still refuse to seek help by experts like the CCC (chaoscomputerclub).

  • Thanks for linking. I think the general mistrus is a pretty big problem in Germany. Which doesn’t mean that you don’t have it in other countries. I know the situation is more or less the same in France, but Germany and France have some unfortunate similarities anyway.

    And yeah, the mistrus has some historical basis. Still, it is sad to see the government continuing with this path, instead of trying to become more constructive and optimistic (which is possible even if you want to raise awareness of something).

    And regarding irony. Well, I’m not sure if this is something Germans are good at ;)

    • Ok it looks as if I was wrong regarding the irony issue, considering how the #blumenkübel story is spreading on the German web right now…

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  • Commercial media don’t have a mission, they have a bottom line. Likewise, politicians don’t have a mission, they have elections. If fear mongering helps either group enough, they’ll be more than happy to provide it.

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  • Jimbo

    There is a right about informational self determination. My data belongs to me. Anyone wanting it, please apply.

    This right is upheld by the constitutional court. Sorry Jeff, no emotions here, just my rights.

    And I dont care about the government in this case, it’s the companies I am worried about. Problem is: governments act on laws that I (can) know about. Companies do not publish their strategy, they do not ask but act. And in their world, collecting data is perceived as something that has to be done, without it businesses will collapse.

    • So if I see you in a store picking up a banana, I need to ask permission to know that? That’s the point, friend: Where’s the line? And why? Just saying everything is private is not an answer unless you are bin Laden in a cave with no friends. What’s your data? If the town counts how many people go down a street so it can decide whether to install a traffic light, is that your data? The irrationality of just declaring that all your data belongs to you is what makes this emotional.

  • JohnNL

    Well, the Internet is a public place. And as in any public place, like the supermarket, you shouldn’t expect to have privacy by default. Of course, as in the physical world, there are exceptions. You will have to trust the website of your bank to handle your information with care. But this is part of your relationship with your bank, the Internet has little to do with it.
    People shouldn’t be scared of the Internet any more than they should be scared of going outside. They just need to change their expectation of how private the Internet is.

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  • Stan Hogan

    I don’t know if it was really necessary to drag the Nazi regime into the discussion in order to make your point, but whatever.

    I do have the right and expectation of privacy in many cases. Sure, there is no such thing as complete privacy but knowledge can help me protect what I see as most important.

    Knowing what might be compromised online helps me to take steps to protect myself. Maybe I need rules and laws to aid that cause, maybe I don’t.

    But educating people about what is being done with their data and how it is gathered seems to really bother you. My best guess as to the reason has to do with your flimsy economic models for online.

    • Stan,
      How does this really educate people? It gives them no useful information. It makes a bad analogy. It raises fear and paranoia. Educate? I think you give it too much credit and give the population too little credit.

      • Stan Hogan

        True enough, the commercial is lacking in useful information, other than perhaps it’s not wise to go pantless in a grocery store. I guess I was mostly still reacting to your take on the far more useful WSJ article.

        But when it comes to giving the population too little credit I immediately think of that shallow, twisted barrage of campaign commercials we get every big election. You have to be rather thin up top to buy into those but still they must work. Right?

        This is how you reach that crowd, I guess.

  • Legal realism

    >>>There is a right about informational self determination . . . This right is upheld by the constitutional court. Sorry Jeff, no emotions here, just my rights.

    Please note in your book that the whole world is not governed by U.S. law.

  • Todd McKinney
  • Rick

    The part you are missing is how unconscious most people are. This unconscious state leaves people very vulnerable to psychological manipulation. The marketing industry has used psychological tools to manipulate our society in a way that has created a tangle of extreme corporate agendas. Many of these agendas have seemingly short term fun, but carry long term consequences. Take McDonalds for example. Here is a company that produces a product that is tested as safe by the meal, but not tested for it’s long term use which almost certainly leads to an early and painful death through latent onset diabetes. Don’t get me started on Big Pharma and the Tobacco industry

    i used to much more of a sort of Caveat Emptor, but the power and greed of the big institutions is just out of control.

    “A sucker born every minute” is sort of the ethics statement of enough great money making ventures that cannibalize their customer base aw well as themselves and just go to Washington and get bailed out while the customers loose everything.

    The pace of technological advancement in the manipulation of public interest is far out-pacing the ability of the average individual to keep themselves informed. Transparency and prayer seemto be the only helpful thing to promote in the face of this leviathan.

    The hope for America will come from individual and small business people. Academia is simply too insulated from reality to be of much help.

    Good luck


  • Jeff: completely agree with your position here.

    question is: how do we go about educating consumers about what they should be comfortable with ?

    I am personally comfortable with tracking cookies, because I am tech savvy and know when to cover my tracks with tools available out there.

    happy to collaborate and assist if you have a hunch or are willing to participate in a way to find the right answer

  • Thanks for sharing the link… living in Germany -as an expat- I’m always surprised with the gubernamental fear of the net.