Are Privacy and Security Vitamins or Aspirins?

Just finished a talk for Topics in Privacy where I was making the case that both privacy and security are vitamins rather than aspirin.

The old saw goes that businesses need to provide aspirin, that is solve an immediate problem, rather than provide vitamins, something that we all know is good for us but we don't do. The observation here is that privacy and security seem to be more of vitamins, something we know we should have in our systems and something we know we should take more care of, but rarely do.

This insight struck me while I was reading the New York Times Magazine, more specifically The Autonomist's Manifesto.

When this experiment began in 1996, some critics said it was unfair to create these ''Lexus lanes.'' But by now, even drivers who won't pay the toll have come to appreciate the lanes because they divert traffic from the regular highway. And while affluent drivers are more likely to pay the bill, surveys have found people of all incomes using the lanes. Most of the ones I interviewed were budget-conscious, middle-class commuters who used the free lanes when possible. But when the traffic got heavy, they considered the toll a bargain.

''Isn't it worth a couple of dollars to spend an extra half-hour with your family?'' said T.J. Zane, a political consultant who drives a 1997 Volkswagen Jetta. ''That's what I used to spend on a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Now I've started bringing my own coffee and using the money for the toll.''

These toll lanes have become so popular that they're being extended 12 miles farther out of town, and the concept of variable tolls has become highway engineers' favorite solution to traffic jams. After decades of working on technological fixes like beam-control roads, they've turned to basic economics instead. They now see traffic jams as the equivalent of bread lines in the Soviet Union, a consequence of an unimaginative monopoly run by politicians loath to charge the market price for a valuable commodity. To be fair to the Soviet politicians, though, at least they didn't blame the public for the problem that they created. They didn't promote a smart-diet program urging people to eat less bread.

The privacy risks here are in how the monitoring system could be used for purposes beyond congestion control, but interestingly, privacy isn't mentioned at all. Again, vitamins versus aspirin.

It all reminds me of that famous quote by Vance Packard: ""My own hunch is that Big Brother, if he comes to the United States, will turn out to be not a greedy power-seeker but a relentless bureaucrat obsessed with efficiency."


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