Privacy is Power

calendar iconOct 21, 2021

The modern ‘data economy’—collection and monetisation of personal data by companies in every field from finance to social media—can not only lead to predictions of people’s behaviour but also influence over it, and paying cash is one way to begin taking control.

Carissa Véliz, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford, specialises in the exploration of privacy and AI ethics. In her new book—Privacy is Power—she discusses the steady erosion of privacy by technological advances and government policies, and how this has come to challenge democracy itself.

In an interview with ProtonMail, Carissa explains: “Privacy is really a kind of power, and a lack of it gives others power over you. So, the more other people know about you, the more they can try to figure out what you’re going to do next and try to interfere with that. That’s exactly what companies and governments are doing, and that’s a bad thing for democracy. For democracy to be strong, you need the bulk of power to be with the citizenry.”

On a personal level, Carissa says there can be far higher prices to pay when privacy is lost. Personal data including browsing records, credit history, health records and more can be bought and used to make everything from hiring choices—perhaps resulting in a missed job opportunity—to decisions on whether or not an individual is approved for a loan or insurance coverage, and how much they will be charged for goods and services, such as flights. These ‘legal’ ramifications also go hand in hand with the illegal: criminals looking to steal account details and commit identity fraud.

Carissa argues that everyone is responsible for creating a culture in which the right to privacy is respected, and she is clear on the steps individuals can take to contribute. On the broadest level, she calls on people to demand businesses and governments enable everyone to choose privacy more easily. On a day-to-day level, even simple payment choices can support privacy and help deny the data economy. When asked what she thought of digital currency, she allowed that—if correctly implemented—such payments could offer better privacy than credit cards, but there is no way to pay more private than cash.

There’s absolutely nothing as private as cash, and we should never get rid of it.
"Carissa VélizAssociate Professor of PhilosophyUniversity of Oxford

While noting it should not be as hard as it is for people to enjoy privacy, Carissa observes that in reality, people are obliged to choose between the easy route of accepting default options presented by businesses and surrendering privacy, or else make the effort to defend that privacy and ultimately ‘pay a high price in inconvenience’.

At least when it comes to payments in person, choosing cash is a quick and easy way to keep transactions out of the data economy.

Enjoying privacy, at a minimum, demands installing software to block tracking online… remembering to turn off the WiFi and Bluetooth signals on your mobile phone when leaving the house, using cash, and so on.
"Carissa VélizAssociate Professor of PhilosophyUniversity of Oxford
Last Updated: Oct 21, 2021