Privacy Again

Paul H. Rubin —  15 November 2011

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a long article-debate on privacy.  The strongest pro-privacy is Christopher Soghoian of the Open Society Institute.  He confuses commercial privacy with government privacy:

“The dirty secret of the Web is that the “free” content and services that consumers enjoy come with a hidden price: their own private data. Many of the major online advertising companies are not interested in the data that we knowingly and willingly share. Instead, these parasitic firms covertly track our web-browsing activities, search behavior and geolocation information. Once collected, this mountain of data is analyzed to build digital dossiers on millions of consumers, in some cases identifying us by name, gender, age as well as the medical conditions and political issues we have researched online.”

When asked “Why is that a problem” he replies

“Many of the dangers posed by digital dossiers do not occur regularly, but are incredibly destructive to people’s lives when they do. An unlucky few will be stalked, fired, surveilled, arrested, deported or even tortured, all as a result of the data kept about them by companies and governments. Much more common are the harms of identity theft or public embarrassment. Even when companies follow best practices—and few do—it is impossible to be completely secure.”

Note that “parasitic firms” are collecting the data which is then used for arrest, deportation, and torture.  A bit of a disconnect. Identity theft is a problem, but the risk is decreasing and the costs are almost always low.  Moreover, identity thieves are crooks, not firms.

What is particularly interesting about the article is the survey data reported.  It demonstrates peoples’ confusion about the issues.  92% of the adults surveyed  “Think that there should be a law that requires websites and advertising companies to delete all stored information about an individual” but between 32% and 47% would like websites to provide information of some sort (ads: 32%, discounts: 47%, or news: 40%) “tailored to their interests.”  But of course these numbers are totally inconsistent.  If websites cannot keep any information about an individual, then they cannot provide tailored information since there will be nothing on which to base the tailoring.  The relevant questions are tradeoff questions, but the reported survey does not address these.

Paul H. Rubin


PAUL H. RUBIN is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics at Emory University in Atlanta and formerly editor in chief of Managerial and Decision Economics. He blogs at Truth on the Market. He was President of the Southern Economic Association in 2013. He is a Fellow of the Public Choice Society and is associated with the Technology Policy Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Independent Institute. Dr. Rubin has been a Senior Economist at President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers, Chief Economist at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Director of Advertising Economics at the Federal Trade Commission, and vice-president of Glassman-Oliver Economic Consultants, Inc., a litigation consulting firm in Washington. He has taught economics at the University of Georgia, City University of New York, VPI, and George Washington University Law School. Dr. Rubin has written or edited eleven books, and published over two hundred and fifty articles and chapters on economics, law, regulation, and evolution in journals including the American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Journal of Legal Studies, and the Journal of Law and Economics, and he frequently contributes to the Wall Street Journal and other leading newspapers. His work has been cited in the professional literature over 8000 times. Books include Managing Business Transactions, Free Press, 1990, Tort Reform by Contract, AEI, 1993, Privacy and the Commercial Use of Personal Information, Kluwer, 2001, (with Thomas Lenard), Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom, Rutgers University Press, 2002, and Economics, Law and Individual Rights, Routledge, 2008 (edited, with Hugo Mialon). He has consulted widely on litigation related matters and has been an adviser to the Congressional Budget Office on tort reform. He has addressed numerous business, professional, policy, government and academic audiences. Dr. Rubin received his B.A. from the University of Cincinnati in 1963 and his Ph.D. from Purdue University in 1970.

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