Edward Snowden’s disclosure of massive NSA spying programs has reignited a debate about privacy and surveillance in the digital age. Speaking to the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, Snowden said that his one fear about the leaks was simply that nobody would care:
…he told me he had only one fear. It was that the disclosures he was making, momentous though they were, would fail to trigger a worldwide debate because the public had already been taught to accept that they have no right to privacy in the digital age.
This idea, that nobody cares about privacy anymore, has become prevailing wisdom. Our online over-sharing is being used to justify secret surveillance programs, and corporate data-mining and selling of personal information.
But there is absolutely no proof to this prevailing wisdom. From a Berkeley study, the first large quantitative analysis on the subject:
In this telephonic (wireline and wireless) survey of internet using Americans (N=1000), we found that large percentages of young adults (those 18-24 years) are in harmony with older Americans regarding concerns about online privacy, norms, and policy suggestions. In several cases, there are no statistically significant differences between young adults and older age categories on these topics. Where there were differences, over half of the young adult-respondents did answer in the direction of older adults.
In fact, according to a TIME poll, it is the 18-34 year olds — supposedly those who care the least about their privacy — that show the strongest support for Edward Snowden.
Why, then, do we continue to see teenagers and young adults post compromising photos on Facebook? For one thing, there might be a selection bias at work. You and your friends are clicking and ‘liking’ sensational photos and status updates at a higher rate than photos and status updates of your less sensational friends. Then, Facebook algorithm pushes the over-sharers to the top of your news feed. This gives you the illusion that over-sharing is more common than it is.
Moreover, it is extremely likely that your friends do not actually understand Facebook’s privacy policies. It could be that your friends are comfortable sharing because they feel as if they have total control over the information they are sharing. According to NPR’s Shankar Vedantam, it is when we have that feeling of control that we are most likely to share personal information. However, most Facebook users think they have more control of their information than they actually do. When the Berkeley researchers administered a short test about online privacy policies, young adults performed dismally.
Perhaps for a few exhibitionist outliers, I don’t think we’d see the kind of sharing we do if everyone knew the real privacy policies.
The argument that nobody cares about privacy is a dangerous myth, and it ought to be put to rest. Young adults, like their parents, are indeed worried about their privacy. But this isn’t really about your bar albums, Skype calls with grandma, or Instagram shots of breakfast; this is about those at the radical margins–those who challenge government misdeeds, uncover corporate corruption, and imagine new ways to think, live, and govern. Without privacy protections against a sprawling surveillance state and its omniscient clients (Facebook, Google, Microsoft, etc), we have no hope for a free press, meaningful dissident movements, and other sorts of challenges to state power that are necessary in order to have a vibrant democracy and an accountable government.