Privacy Fundamentalists Don’t Care About the Privacy Preferences of the Silent Majority

Daniel Castro January 28, 2020
January 28, 2020

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When it comes to sharing personal information, most of us are what the renowned privacy scholar Alan Westin called “privacy pragmatists”—we appreciate the value and convenience that today’s technological innovations offer, and we make decisions about which services we want to use and which transactions we want to engage in based on the costs and benefits of each opportunity. Privacy pragmatists do not all necessarily share the exact same preferences, but we are willing to make tradeoffs, such as signing up for a grocery store loyalty card in exchange for a discount or sharing contact information with a hotel in exchange for free Wi-Fi.  

Other people, Westin found, are unconcerned about privacy. These individuals generally do not mind organizations collecting their personal data and are comfortable with the existing set of consumer protections. Westin estimated that these two groups together make up about three out of four Americans.

But the loudest voices in the room these days are not this silent majority but instead a group that Westin labeled “privacy fundamentalists”—people who distrust any organization that asks for their personal information and worry about how it will be stored and used. Given a choice, they’ll nearly always take more privacy restrictions over more consumer benefits, even if it costs them more or is an inconvenience.

In general, the differences between these groups are not a problem when they are making decisions for themselves. But as policymakers consider new privacy laws and regulations, many privacy fundamentalists are calling for policies that codify their more extreme preferences rather than respecting the preferences of most consumers for more choice and control. Indeed, by frequently repeating mantras such as “privacy is a human right,” privacy fundamentalists are attempting to make any compromise politically untenable and overrule the will of the majority. Their goal is to enact the strongest possible privacy laws and regulations, even those that most Americans support—such as collecting and sharing medical data for life-saving research, or using facial recognition to improve convenience and public safety.

Many privacy fundamentalists would happily ban new technologies they perceive as threats to their coveted privacy rather than enable more widespread consumer choice. Likewise, many privacy fundamentalists would ignore the significant economic costs of stringent data-protection laws, even if these policies disproportionately affect low-income Americans. These types of solutions might make sense for privacy fundamentalists, but most Americans do not support proposals to ban useful technologies or charge people more for what they get today. Privacy fundamentalist likely would respond that these Americans simply do not understand how to look after their own interests, and given the chance, would substitute their own judgement for others.

This is not to say that Congress should ignore the concerns of privacy fundamentalists, but their views should not trump those of the rest of us. As Congress moves forward with federal privacy legislation, it will be important that the “silent majority” of privacy pragmatists find their voices too. After all, privacy pragmatists also care about privacy, they just don’t want it to come at the cost of convenience, savings, or other benefits. And if Congress passes legislation to create a national privacy framework that streamlines regulation, preempts state laws, establishes basic consumer data rights, and minimizes the impact on innovation, then it can give consumers more choice, thereby enhancing privacy for everyone.