A demand for the demand of privacy-protecting tools

This isn’t an argument for capitalism or vegetarianism, but it starts that way. I first began warming up to capitalism when I learned more about Michael Pollan’s idea to “vote with your fork” and choose each of your three meals with consideration for what impact you’re having on the environment, on workers, on animals, on limited resources, etc. It’s a mindful way to live that requires more effort, education and money, but it also has the real impact of creating a market-as-a-movement to change the very structure of the American food chain and empower consumers.

For instance, a friend of mine is largely vegetarian unless he buys from his local butcher who’s supplied by a local farm that raises their animals fairly and humanely. He’s not contributing to the demand that causes many big food producers and animal processing plants to put quantity over quality. Instead, he’s showing the market that there’s a demand for humanely raised meat, and that he’d rather spend more money for an occasional cut than buy poor-quality, poorly raised meat at the lowest cost.

But he’s also fortunate that food justice, alternative diets and farm-to-table practices now have a place in mainstream society, and that he as a consumer has options available to him.

Julia Angwin, author of “Dragnet Nation: A quest for privacy, security, and freedom in a world of relentless surveillance,” was not so fortunate when she took on a mission to live privately in our digital age and was met with an overwhelming demand for consumer data and little demand for tools to fight against it. 

As she took a stand against data aggregators and sellers, she began to form her own guiding principles of how she would approach her goals for privacy. One of those guidelines to govern her behavior was “Pay for performance,” which closely resembled “vote with your fork” in that she was willing to pay good money for goods and services that protected and furthered her interests. Angwin writes,

Many of the hackers who build privacy-protecting technology are adherents of the free software movement. They believe that users should be able to build and modify the software that they use, so that they are not trapped in systems they do not control.

Theoretically, free (as in freedom to modify) software does not need to be free (as in price). But in reality, most profit-seeking companies prefer not to open up their code to outside tinkering. And so most free-to-modify software ends up being free-in-price.

The unfortunate result is that without a revenue stream, much of this software withers from neglect when the programmers who built it for free in their spare time move on to other hobbies. So in my quest to protect privacy, I will aim to support (through donations or purchasing software) projects that pay their programmers a living wage, in the hope that the project will continue.

Among privacy-protecting tools that she did find to support, Angwin’s advocacy led her to Brian Kennish, a former Google and Doubleclick engineer and founder of open-source software Disconnect. As their website puts it, “Disconnect lets you visualize and block the invisible websites that track your browsing history.”

Following Angwin’s lead, I installed the simple extension to my Chrome browser, which allowed me to see just how many advertising companies were trying to track me, as well as outside requests for analytics, social and content data. Disconnect blocks those requests and those companies trying to follow me from site to site to advertise what I might like or what I’ve just viewed.

Though data aggregators may be a mammoth force to take on, consumers are beginning to seek out privacy measures following Edward Snowden’s revealing news of NSA practices last year, and opportunities for privacy protection are beginning to grow. Writing on her conversation with Kennish, Angwin notes,

He said that he still had hope for the market for privacy. First, he said, users will “disconnect” from the trackers. Then, he said, users can get paid to “reconnect” with select businesses. Eventually, he said, there will be money to be made.

“I’m a capitalist,” he told me. “And I want to change the world.”

I wanted to support Brian’s approach. It fit with my guiding principle of pay for performance.

Kennish’s hope for the privacy market-as-a-movement may not be as far off as it seems. Already, industry leaders are calling for new standards to be set within their products, often citing a need for good data over big data. Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s outgoing Information and Privacy Commissioner, spoke at an event hosted by Irish data analytics firm DNM Analytics and said, “Privacy has enormous value at both the societal level and at the individual level. It forms the basis of our freedoms and allows creativity and innovation to thrive. So my most important message is that it’s not an either/or phenomenon.” She went on to say, “If you can embed privacy as a default setting, you’re laughing, because then you can offer your clients or customers privacy assurance.” This all points to the fact that privacy and big data are not a zero-sum game; it is possible to have both privacy and data.

But right now, the market for privacy tools and protection is still young, and support is needed. Angwin herself draws parallels to the food industry when she’s debating which privacy software to choose in a scarce market:

The choice reminded me of the early days of the organic food movement. Often, the organic aisles were filled with shriveled, spotted produce. But slowly, over time, as more people bought the organic apples, quality improved. Now, organic vegetables are often just as good-looking or better than the conventional produce.

For me, using Disconnect was similar to buying organic produce in the early days. I was choosing to support the privacy-software market–even if its product wasn’t always as shiny as the competition’s.

As consumers we have a responsibility to educate ourselves of the products and services we’re using, as well as the concessions we make when we engage with those suppliers. But it cannot be solely up to consumers.

Privacy tools and more extensive product settings are good news for business, too. While many believe that big data is the answer to consumer insight and increased profits, providing products and services that offer more privacy protection can actually save money long-term and bolster a company’s public image, all good news for businesses and their customers.

Cavoukian’s highly praised Privacy by Design framework outlines how companies can strive to protect their consumers’ privacy while fostering innovation and creativity, calling for measures like privacy as the default setting and a respect for user privacy. In fact, she notes that this is good for both the individual and the organization, that “ensuring privacy and gaining personal control over one’s information and, for organizations, gaining a sustainable competitive advantage,” is a viable option.

This effort is beginning to gain momentum, but still more demand is needed to convince software providers and businesses that big data is not the way to befriend or ensnare new customers. There are better ways to reach consumers that don’t involve stalking them online, or betraying their trust or personal information.

One of the simplest economic principles, supply and demand can dictate real change within an industry and within an economy. And when there’s a real demand for tools and products that protect privacy, there’s the opportunity to supply real change.