Weighing up the losses
Unfortunately, it is not easy to assess the weight of privacy losses. Typically, in the online world, no small privacy loss will create a catastrophe. One business tracking one click of yours is not a big deal. But privacy losses accumulate, and the entirety of what you have revealed online through browsing, clicking, buying and liking, can paint a frighteningly detailed portrait of you.
Privacy losses are like ecologic damages or health deterioration: no one act of littering, no one puff of a cigarette will bring about disaster, but the sum of them through time might.
What possible damage could come from giving up privacy online, you may wonder. If you ask for a job, it is likely that the company considering hiring you will buy a file on you from data brokers. Your file may contain information on browsing habits, credit history, health records, and more. The company may not hire you because of something you posted on social media, or because of some other kind of “stain” on your record, and you will never know why it was, nor will you ever be able to contest that decision.
Similarly, a bank may not grant you a loan from information they glean from you on the internet. The information on which they make their decision may be inaccurate, but again, you will never know. Hackers could turn on your camera and blackmail you with sensitive footage. Criminals may commit identity theft.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft complaints in the US increased by 47% between 2014 and 2015. Trolls may harass you online and offline. Insurance companies may charge you according to information about your habits. Products such as flights may become more expensive for you depending on how much you seem to want them. And the list goes on.
It is paramount that we demand businesses and government institutions enable us to enjoy privacy online more easily. In the meantime, however, you might want to think twice about surrendering your privacy for the sake of convenience.
In conjunction with Oxford University’s Practical Ethics blog