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Joseph Rauch Headshot

Is Privacy Really THAT Special Anymore?

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Since privacy is a broad term and can be defined in many ways, it is not always clear what an invasion of privacy is or whether there are different degrees of invasion. Some pervert using binoculars to spy on you in the shower or follow you around vs. the government or Google reading your e-mails can both count as invasions of privacy but only the former presents any sort of potential for disruption or danger in your life so long as you are a law abiding citizen.

Currently, people can find out just about everything they want to know about you by using cookies and behavioral targeting since your Internet history is readily accessible. This has its rewards and aversions since consumers appreciate things like friend suggestions on Facebook, but also might find it creepy that so much of their behavior can be predicted.

When it comes to what people perceive as an invasion of privacy, the line gets drawn in different ways. Recently, the media discovered that Target had been using their customers' purchase records in order to predict when women were becoming pregnant and giving birth. They used this knowledge in order to beat the competition and send pregnant women ads for baby related products before they even gave birth (the future mothers usually received the ads during their second trimester). Consumers found this outrageous even though the marketing technique Target used is basically just an especially well-baked cookie; the same kind of cookie that people deal with everyday and don't seem so upset about. What Target was doing was perhaps morally wrong but was certainly not harmful to these pregnant women. It is also not so far from the kind of targeted advertising that anyone who uses Google is susceptible to.

In other words, there are very few people in the world who still have privacy if you define it loosely. This is where I believe an important question lies: Are the benefits that customers receive from cookies and similar devices worth the invasion of privacy and question of morality? I think the answer to this depends on how one values and defines degrees of privacy.

I'll present an extreme hypothetical situation in order to demonstrate just how valuable certain kinds of privacy are. Let's say that the government or Target or Google is reading all of your e-mails, recording your browser history, looking at your Facebook page and activity, etc. However, they never physically send anyone or anything to watch you. They never use cameras, but they know a lot of what you are doing and can predict the rest. Let's say you are not aware of any of this and will never be aware. In this situation, what the invader of your privacy is doing is obviously morally wrong and despicable. However, what they are doing does not affect the actual actions you take in your daily life. They are not actually stopping you from living your life as you would if they were not invading your privacy in this manner. I doubt a company like Google really cares about things in your life other than what you buy, even if they end up finding out about these things, and I doubt the government would show up at your house after reading an e-mail about something that wasn't illegal.

Ultimately, this kind of invasion of privacy means nothing to anyone unless the person is intentionally hiding something or perhaps has something that is certainly worth hiding. If somebody is hiding something suspicious, illegal, or potentially dangerous to the country or to others, maybe having Big Brother around isn't so bad. I say this not because I don't think privacy is important, but because I think that it is not clearly defined and that fighting a war against all the people who invade privacy is currently impossible.

For example, Google has paid penalties for their invasions of privacy, but the fees have been too small to ever stop Google from continuing such behavior. If people who value privacy for the sake of the right and not because they have something to hide want to protect their privacy completely, they should rally together and attempt to define exactly what it is and enforce harsher penalties for violating it. Until then or rather if that moment ever comes, most people will live with constant invasions of privacy that are arguably immoral, but harmless nonetheless.

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