Everyone Knows Privacy Is About Power. Now What?

By M. Ryan Calo

Posted on September 2, 2014


In a recent op-ed, author Evgeny Morozov claims that we tend to think of privacy in terms of control over personal information rather than power or influence. “The privacy debate, incapacitated by misplaced pragmatism, defines privacy as individual control over information flows,” writes Morozov. Instead we should be thinking of how and why powerful institutions use data to nudge us toward their own economic and political ends.

I am not sure what Morozov is reading. The idea that privacy has everything to do with power and the prospect of manipulation is the animating theme of Julia Angwin’s Dragnet Nation—a New York Times bestseller. According to the White House (heard of it?) report on big data, the very problem is over-influence: “Society must take steps to guard against these potential harms by ensuring power is appropriately balanced between individuals and institutions, whether between citizen and government, consumer and firm, or employee and business.” For the World Economic Forum, “These power dynamics serve to frame the narrative for many of the digital dilemmas shaping the personal data ecosystem.” Their position paper endorses the proposition that “We are only beginning to understand how vast asymmetries of information coupled with the unilateral power to design the legal and visual terms of the transaction could alter the consumer landscape.”

Though perhaps newly mainstream, the idea is not new. The title of the leading work by the leading scholar in privacy law is Privacy and Power: Computer Databases and Metaphors for Information Privacy. Other privacy scholars to take up this connection include Julie Cohen, Paul Schwartz, Neil Richards (including with Jonathan King), Danielle Citron, Frank Pasquale, Tal Zarsky, and Jason Schultz (with Kate Crawford). And that’s just a sampling of “legal academics,” to borrow Morozov’s boogeyman: other disciplines have been writing in this vein since the nineteen seventies.

Everyone knows privacy is about power. Now what? Recent work by Cohen has gone as far as anyone in describing a solution space to massive asymmetries of information and influence. She would require simultaneously that people understand how technology works (“operational transparency”) and are sometimes surprised by it. Michel Foucault came to urge (in The Use of Pleasure) that we escape the constraining forces of our episteme through an aesthetics of existing, that is, living life as a work of art. Similarly, Cohen would make room for “play” in contemporary day-to-day by purposively cultivating gaps in civic and private power. Danielle Citron argues for “technological due process” that embeds accountability into the algorithms that increasingly govern our existence. I call for a disruption of incentives of firms to use information and influence to nudge consumers for profit. And so on.

Each of these accounts has its problems. Each is incomplete. Let’s talk about them and generate many others. Let’s stop diagnosing the problem and roll up our sleeves and do the hard, complex work of addressing it.

The preceding is republished on TAP with permission by its author, Ryan Calo, law professor at the University of Washington, faculty director of the Tech Policy Lab, and affiliate scholar at the Stanford Center for Internet & Society (CIS). “Everyone Knows Privacy Is About Power. Now What?” was originally published on Ryan Calo's CIS Blog on August 15, 2014.



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