The problem with completely eliminating privacy

The New York Times has an interesting story about a company that uses facial recognition to completely eliminate privacy as we know it.

If we only had one goal, to deter crime at all costs, one of the best strategies would be to put all of us into individual cages. The reason we don’t choose that option is because we all agree that it comes at the cost of what we see as essential to living freely.

Where we sometimes disagree is whether privacy is essential to living freely.

1) One argument is that if you have nothing bad to hide you have no need for privacy. And that privacy only enables an environment for societies ills to fester. As an example, this was the initial philosophy behind Facebook and the trusted social graph it wanted to build. You can use your own legal name only. You can’t be anonymous etc. Anonymity leads to things like the YouTube comment threads that are bad. And worse, it enables criminals to get away with bad things.

2) The other argument is that privacy actually safeguards our freedoms. And it comes down to understanding how imperfect systems are at defining and managing our realities. Facebook learned that its original philosophy had to be changed when they were confronted with the needs of abuse victims, victims of social persecution, people in witness protection, identity theft, victims of government persecution etc. None of those people are bad people, but they have a legitimate need to their privacy and control of their identity. Their very freedom depends on it.

It’s a no-brainer that tools like this will deter crime. That tools like this have the potential to make life easier. But it only makes the world better for a few people who have the privilege of not needing privacy. And it’s all relative. A system that goes down that slippery slope keeps eating away at the weakest and most vulnerable and it becomes harder to fix it by the time the more privileged folks have the opportunity to understand first-hand what gets lost in the mix.

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