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Privacy and Tracking

Paul H. Rubin —  12 March 2011

First I would like to thank Geoff Manne for inviting me to join this blog.  I know most of my fellow bloggers and it is a group I am proud to be associated with.

For my first few posts I am going to write about privacy.  This is a hot topic.  Senators McCain and Kerry are floating a privacy bill, and the FTC is also looking at privacy. I have written a lot about privacy (mostly with Tom Lenard of the Technology Policy Institute, where I am a senior fellow).

The issue of the day is “tracking.”  There are several proposals for “do not track” legislation and polls show that consumers do not want to be tracked.

The entire fear of being tracked is based on an illusion.  It is a deep illusion, and difficult or impossible to eliminate, but still an illusion.   People are uncomfortable with the idea that someone knows what they are doing.  (It is “creepy.”)  But in fact no person knows what you are doing, even if you are being tracked. Only a machine knows.

As humans, we have difficulty understanding that something can be “known” but nonetheless not known by anyone.   We do not understand that we can be “tracked” but that no one is tracking us.  That is, data on our searches may exist on a server somewhere so that the server “knows” it, but no human knows it.  We don’t intuitively grasp this concept because it it entirely alien to our evolved intelligence.

In my most recent paper (with Michael Hammock, coming out in Competition Policy International) we cite two books by Clifford Nass ( C. Nass & C. Yen, The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships (2010), and B. Reeves & C. Nass, The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places (1996, 2002).)  Nass and his coauthors show that people automatically treat intelligent machines like other people.  For example, if asked to fill out a questionnaire about the quality of a computer, they rate the machine higher if they are filling out the form on the computer being rated than if it on another computer — they don’t want to hurt the computer’s feelings.  Privacy is like that — people can’t adapt to the notion that a machine knows something. They assume (probably unconsciously) that if somethingis known then a person knows it, and this is why they do not like being tracked.

One final point about tracking.  Even if you are tracked, the purpose is to find out what you want and sell it to you.  Selling people things they want is the essence of the market economy, and if tracking does a better job of this, then it is helping the market function better, and also helping consumers get products that are a better fit.  Why should this make anyone mad?