How to Make People Care About Privacy

It’s that time again. I’ve been seeing the question pop up a lot: “how do I get the people around me to care about privacy?” Truthfully I’ve tackled this topic a few times in a few different ways, but today I want to address a different side of this question.

Publicly asking “how do I make my friends and family care about privacy?” has several problematic components, and in this blog post I want to examine them. Particularly the fact that – as one podcaster jokes – I failed Psychic Powers 101. This is just a sarcastic way of saying “I’m not psychic.” Most of you reading this know nothing about my parents or my siblings. I’ve made offhand comments here and there in past blogs that you can probably infer a few things from, but overall I wouldn’t expect you to know a lot of vital information. “Vital information” in this case would include things like values and concerns. When I ask “how can I get my mom to care about privacy?” you are missing a lot of critical information to accurately answer that question. Ignoring the horde of stupid (and in some cases illegal) answers thrown out by people who clearly haven’t spoken to another actual human being in months, you may consider ideas like “explain how invasive Facebook tracking is” or “explain how this information could be used to censor you if the wrong political party took office.”

Let me tell you a little bit about my mom and see if your answer changes: when I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she told me she always wanted to be a mother. As soon as my youngest sibling moved out of the house, she wasted no time in getting two cats because she enjoys caring for and nurturing someone. She adores her grandkids and talks about them all the time. My mom is also, well, I wouldn’t say “poor” but technically speaking. My mother once told me she never made more than $40,000/year at any point in her life (impressive how well she managed money, looking back on my childhood). She’s passionate about architecture and design, and is a woman of faith.

If you’re a veteran privacy advocate, your brain probably exploded with a ton of new arguments to win her over. “Facebook is stalking and brainwashing your grandkids.” “Your grandkids are growing up in a world where every dumb, innocent, ‘growing up’ mistake they make is being immortalized and may cost them a job in the future.” “Your bank is using your data – including your friends circle – to determine interest rates, coverage amounts, and loan eligibility.” “Your religion might be targeted for censorship or persecution.” I have shared many of these stories with her myself, and they do worry her. Last month, something amazing happened: my mom actually signed Fight For The Future’s petition for the IRS to stop using ID.me’s facial recognition software. I know this because she sent me their “victory” email and said “yay!” I told her that I was honestly surprised she signed it as I didn’t think she would care, and then went on to to praise her and thank her for helping and congratulate her for being part of positive change in the world (always gotta have that positive reinforcement). While I wish my mom would do more (namely quit Facebook and use better passwords), she’s on the right path. She has Bitwarden, now she just needs to change passwords. I think she’s moved off Chrome and started using DuckDuckGo instead of Google search. She even once called me and asked for helping putting Linux on an old Windows Vista computer she found because she wanted to use it but knew that Vista was no longer safe.

Here’s my point: it’s all about knowing how to reach the person. And this is what those random, public “how do I get people to care” posts always miss. I don’t know your mom. I don’t your sister, or brother, or significant other, or best friend, or boss, or whoever. My approach to making them care is going to change dramatically based off every piece of information I learn about them. Are they right-leaning or left-leaning politically? Are they even political? What do they value? Are they family-oriented or independent? Where do they draw the line between freedom and the “greater good”? Have they ever had a stalker? Have they ever had their identity stolen? Are they a cam girl? An adult actor is probably not going to be swayed by the “do you close the blinds at night?” argument when they post their nudes publicly online with the intention of being seen.

An example I made recently that I think really worked was guns. Bear with me, I’m not going to get political (even though I’ve now brought up guns twice in three weeks, I'm sorry). But that caveat proves my point: everyone reading this has an opinion on guns, and they’re probably all very, wildly different opinions. On one end of the spectrum we have people who think all firearms should be illegal and not even law enforcement should carry them. On the other end, we have people who think that guns shouldn’t be regulated in any way, shape, or form and that it should be on the user to be responsible. This is because we all have different beliefs, experiences, and values that shape how we view everything, like our views on guns. Another example I gave was “where do you think I [Nate] should go on vacation?” I’m sure you guys have some solid recommendations but I bet few (if any) of you are going list any of the really cool places that are on my actual bucket list. Again: I have unique experiences, values, and outlooks on life. Does that mean I’m a special snowflake and there’s nobody else on earth like me? Eh, yes and no. I’ve met lots of people that I share commonalities with, but it's probably safe to say that nobody has the exact same combination of interests and opinions that I do. True crime, video games, sci-fi, there’s a lot of categories I fall into, but even in those categories there's not a guaranteed uniformity. Not everyone agrees with my assessment of Tenet or who was the worst serial killer. And that’s true of anyone. My mother cares very much about her grandkids’ permanent records while my coworker – also a mother – doesn’t. A blanket “what should I say” question fails to recognize that despite all our commonalities, people are still people.

No two people are identical, and even despite their similarities they can still vary wildly in their values. Thus, there is no one-size fits all argument for why privacy matters, and there is no magic combination of words like some sort of incantation that will suddenly make every person care about privacy. If there was, don’t you think we would’ve started using it by now? That’s really what this question is always asking: “what’s the magic word I can say that’ll make people care about privacy?” The answer is that there is none. “Expecto Privacium” does not exist. And neither do psychic powers (at least, as far as science is concerned). Strangers on the internet are not qualified to tell you how to convince someone to care about privacy when they don’t know that person at all. It’s up to you to identify what a person cares about and find how that relates to privacy. And just a reminder: never go into a discussion expecting someone to change their minds, especially right there. That’s just asking for disappointment. Give them the facts, let them know how they’re affected, and leave it up to them. It may take a while, but you’d be amazed how often people come around.

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