Privacy vs. Utility

Classroom Debate

Do you feel like you’re being watched all the time? In a way, you are. Before the digitization of everything, data was stored physically. For example:

  • Medical histories were collections of paper documents maintained by your doctor/hospital.
  • Photos were shot with film and printed on photo paper.
  • People sent handwritten letters or made phone calls instead of emailing or texting.

Life has become increasingly digital, and so has our data. Your personal data can be used to make life easier and better for you and others. The digitization of your personal data also means that your personal data is now easier to reproduce, share, and access—for both good and ill.

What are the implications of large-scale data storage on privacy and utility? Let’s explore some examples to help you think about this question.

Privacy vs. Utility

Most of the time, we share our personal digital data because we receive something of value in return, which we call utility. This is give-and-take, and most decisions about divulging personal data are relative to their contexts.

For example, you may sign up for a promotion at a local clothing store, Patriotic Hawk Clothier, giving them your email and phone number. Patriotic Hawk is offering a free gift card to anyone who signs up for their email list. You are torn because you know the store is going to bombard you with spam email, but you really want the gift card.

Trading Privacy for Utility

Consumers are constantly being asked to give their personal data—purchase histories and spending habits—in order for their activities to be tracked and data stored. Why would consumers allow or even welcome this practice?

A) The monetary motivation is incentive to justify linking purchase history to the card holder/patron.

For example, many grocery stores, department stores, etc., only provide discounted prices to those who have signed up for their “Rewards” program. In these cases, you trade your data (purchasing history/spending habits) for reduced prices. In this case, your data has a clear, monetary value to both you and the store. You must decide whether the value is great enough for you to allow the collection of your data.

B) Companies provide customized “special offers,” “deals,” or “recommendations” gleaned from analysis of personal data.

Again, there is a clear financial incentive to use personal data in these cases, though less quantifiable since not all deals end up being purchased.

These are two simple examples of why data collection can provide users with utility, but your digital data takes many other forms besides purchasing history (see Blown to Bits, Chapter 2). Here are some examples where the utility gained is not monetary:

Finger/Footprint Privacy Concern Utility Potentially Gained
Public cameras Individuals can be tracked Crimes and emergencies can be tracked
Media metadata (e.g., EXIF headers) Identifiable information can be obtained from photos Cameras automatically tag location, date/time, camera setting information to pictures for further reference
GPS (Global Positioning System) embedded in phones Individuals can be tracked in real time App support; usage in emergencies
RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) tags Tracking of individuals, broadcast of data Accessibility

Although a wide variety of data may impact your privacy and give you utility, the nature of digital data and the Internet means that your online information is perhaps the most easily accessible.

Browsing Histories

Internet browsers maintain a search/page history—again, this is your personal data (about where you have been on the Internet and what you have searched for). Why do browsers and search engines do this?

  • Browsers maintain information for ease of use.
    • Recently visited pages can be recalled instantly without redownloading the information required to display them.
    • Common searches can be anticipated through “autocomplete” functions so that users do not have to retype them each time.
  • Cookies allow preferences, passwords, and login information to be stored across browser sessions for convenience.

The police can use this data, too. Computers seized in police investigations are often analyzed for evidence. For example, a bombing suspect whose computer usage includes searches for the terms pipebomb construction, household explosives, blueprints of BUILDING X may find their search histories used as corroborating evidence during trial supporting the prosecution’s claim that the suspect had intent for a bombing.

Debate: Topic and Instructions

In this activity, your class will hold a debate in which one side argues that privacy is more important than utility in relation to personal data collection.

  1. Your teacher will randomly assign students to be either pro-privacy or pro-utility. You must argue your assigned points of view regardless of whether you personally agree with them. This is important in ensuring that the debate remains challenging and balanced.
  2. Conduct an online search for more information and form arguments that support your assigned point of view. You will have 10–20 minutes to prepare.
  3. Debate whether privacy or utility is more important in relation to personal data collection.

Your teacher will share the exact debate protocol with you before the debate begins. Good luck, and remember to remain open-minded and to listen to what the other side says! Will they be able to change your mind, or will you be able to change theirs?