The Cost of Privacy

It’s about five dollars

This saga starts at the San Francisco Farmer’s Market. It’s held at the Ferry Building, at the north end of Market Street in downtown. Every weekend hundreds (thousands?) of people and dozens of booths make this a nice place to do your shopping for fresh foodstuffs if you live in the city. There was no lack of tasty treats for whatever your appetite desires from what I saw.

As I was walking over to the building, I passed by some artists showing their wares and a randomly parked BMW Z3. The BMW was being offered in a raffle. The only requirement for entry is writing down your name, phone number, address, and a couple of other random pieces of information (like age, email) on a little sheet of paper then putting that paper in the appropriate box.

That’s all? Just a little information about myself? Hm… Well, I’ll probably get some telemarketing calls and maybe some junk mail, but for the chance to win a nice, new BMW…

But wait a minute. They’re giving away a BMW for nothing. I mean, I’m not stapling a $5 to the sheet I drop in the box. And the car costs a lot of money. I don’t know exactly how much, but I’m sure it far exceeds what’s in my bank account right now.

So, the BMW-giver-awayers must be getting something of value to cover the cost of the car, right? In other words, if all I’m giving them is my name and such, then that must be worth something. Something as in dollars.

Like five dollars.

Random uninformed numbers to make my argument seem logical: Say they’re giving away a $25,000 car. 5,000 people enter. That means the value of each name is about $5, and certainly more because the people giving away the car must be making profit on our names and information or they wouldn’t have much incentive to invest the $25,000 to invest in the car in the first place.

Your personal information has value. Whole industries are built on this — collecting information about you, what you buy, your demographics, your friends, and what raffles you enter where you give out your name and address.

Another example: Some guy was out on the street giving away free Domino’s personal pizzas to whoever would fill out his little form, presumably for a credit application or something similar. Again, about a $5 investment because us students are high risk for credit card companies, where the credit card company is sure to make back that $5 investment in interest payments. And I was hungry too…

While those are examples of giving out information, most “invasions” of privacy are much more subtle: associating your credit card number with your grocery purchases to build a profile of your shopping; using cookies or spyware to track your web surfing habits; the cameras the government planted in my glasses to keep track of everything I see and do.

Now that I think about it, those “savers cards” you get at the grocery store that they use to track you usually save me about $5 when I use them…

Legally, you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in public spaces. While I agree, I think that anytime it takes more than an individual human’s effort to track what you do, it should be illegal. In other words, computers have made “invasions” into privacy much easier — storing your purchases in a big database available at the click of a mouse. If a person was following you around, writing down by hand everything you did, I would be OK with that. But if it took two or more people to do it, or one person plus a computer (scanning your groceries at the register), then no — that’s too much. Anyway, I think it would be funny if you went to the grocery store, picked up a basket or cart, and then picked up your person to follow you around and record all your purchases.

But again, we value our privacy, and our privacy has a value. Therefore, that grocery store guy can follow me around and write whatever he wants, but I get a free pound of tuna steak. That’s right — tuna steak. I can’t afford the good eats on my income (or lack thereof). My grocery store privacy is worth at least $15 of tuna.

My Internet privacy is up for sale too. You can have it at the small cost of a high-speed dedicated connection (DSL or cable modem, your choice) plus $1 per hour of surfing payable to my PayPal account or in gift certificates. And I promise you it’s good stuff too.

Anyone else interested in buying other aspects of my privacy can inquire via email using the email link at the main menu. Other suggestions include: friends and associates, music listening, TV watching, sleeping, and eating habits (including restaurants, alcohol, and snacks — it’s a bargain!).

What? They’re already tracking that information? Shit… In that case, live streaming videos from my apartment are available at the low, low cost of $5 a month. Though I promise you nothing worth even that much is going on here…