Blogs & Comment

Privacy is the new currency (sorry, poor people)

Privacy depends on a person’s station in life—the rich, for instance, tend to have more of it.

(Photo: George Diebold/Getty)

With everybody sharing every tiny little detail of their lives on social media, I’ve been wondering for some time whether people still value privacy. It’s a question I’m hoping to answer in my next book, but also one that I dipped my toes into in a story for the National Post’sDigital Life” series.

I spoke to some of Canada’s leading experts on privacy and the general consensus among them is that, yes, people do indeed still value privacy. In fact, they may value it more than ever. Head on over to the newspaper’s site for the full story.

One aspect that didn’t make it into the article (damn word-length limits!) was how privacy is a relative thing that depends on a person’s station in life. The rich, for instance, tend to have more of it, which suggests that privacy is a sort of currency.

Ian Kerr, the Canada Research Chair in ethics, law and technology at the University of Ottawa, had some intriguing thoughts about how businesses collect information about people for “social sorting.” Air Canada, for example, might gather info about people so that it knows who to offer “elite” status to, while IKEA collects postal codes so that it knows what demographics are shopping at its stores.

“Different groups are affected differently by the overcollection of information and the way that it is being used,” Kerr says. “Over time you find there’s discrimination against certain groups based on assumptions made about them, which is made up from the data that’s been collected on them.”

This sort of collection and sorting isn’t necessarily Orwellian Big Brother, he says, but more Kafkaesque in its ominousness. A dossier of information on an individual can be built up without that person even knowing about it. Worse still, it can be used against the person.

“It’s potentially affecting your life’s chances and opportunities,” he says. “That’s going to disproportionately affect poorer people who will be treated in particular kinds of ways based on the social categories that they’re put into. Often being put into certain kinds of categories is a reflection of a reshaping of our existing prejudices in a society.”

And where’s the proof that there’s a greater risk of this happening to the poor? Kerr cites the curious case of Mark Zuckerberg, who preaches openness and sharing on Facebook yet clamps down his own profile.

“It’s interesting that he would want everyone to be open and connected and sharing on Facebook so that it can collect all that information about people, yet he won’t even use the settings he’s giving everyone else to use,” Kerr says. “Certain people are able to utilize their rights to privacy better than others.”