The Privacy Paradox
I try to end most of my blogs on some kind of uplifting “call to action,” either to keep up the good fight, better your own privacy and security, or something similar. I don’t expect this post will end the same way.
I’ve never heard this term before but I’ve certainly experienced it and you probably have, too. Recently, a Reddit user posted about “the privacy paradox.” This user shared their story about how they were discussing user engagement in a Discord server with some friends, so they decided to download the chat history and analyze how much each user contributed to the conversation. Much to the surprise of the storyteller, the other members of the channel took extreme offense to this and viewed it as a violation of trust, expelling the person from the server and even losing some friendships. Yet, as the post points out, this was public information, and information Discord already had. What was the difference between a server member analyzing the data for fun and a random Discord employee reading it for marketing? It was total hypocrisy.
If you’ve been into privacy and security for any amount of time and tried to get somebody to switch to a better service, product, or solution, you’ve likely been met with this exact same type of behavior, though maybe to a lesser reaction. Someone I know had their card number stolen from the PlayStation marketplace last year. When I tried to preach to them the value of privacy.com (referral link) in such a situation, I was met with unbelievable pushback about how this is rare, how normally that person is so good about not saving payment information on any websites, blah blah blah. I kept coming back to “and yet, a mistake was made and it happened.” Why so much pushback on something that’s free and could easily save you so much headache in the future? Rather than having to cancel your card and get a new one sent to you a week later and having to put in your card information every time you pay the electric bill, why?
I have never understood the way some people fight me so hard on my attempts to make their lives easier. I’ve mentioned in the past that the way that I commonly push Bitwarden is by explaining how it makes your life more convenient: “tired of trying to remember your passwords? Use Bitwarden. And as an added bonus, you can make better, more secure passwords.” And yet, somehow I still get so much resistance to just trying it. “Eh, then I gotta import all my passwords and change them all and blah blah blah.” Dude, it’s free! Start by adding them one a time, change them later. Nobody ever said you have to sit down and do them all in one sitting. And even then it somehow still takes them a month before they go “so I decided to try out Bitwarden… and I love it.”
Normally when I talk about these topics, I share the solutions I’ve found or heard others say worked. But this time I don’t have one. I mentioned in the past that my partner only began to aggressively use Signal and a VPN on her device after being told that the company monitored the WiFi. Despite the fact that I had told her this many times before, somehow hearing it directly from her boss made it real. It was amazing watching my brother attend a local Black Lives Matter protest last year (with his Android phone in his pocket, probably) while still posting on Facebook and shopping on Amazon. Granted, that last one is more about political views than privacy, but the point is that it’s just amazing to me how people are so resistant to change for any reason, whether that’s to make their own lives easier or even just to simply be more aligned with their own ethics.
I grew up Protestant Christian. (That means “not Catholic” for those who don’t know.) A major tenant of Christianity is to proselytize to others: to spread the “Good News.” I don’t really have any issues with this, but I decided real quick what my method of evangelism would be: setting the example, “walking the walk.” Matthew 5:16 says “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (ESV) In other words, set a good example and others will notice. My style was not to pass out to flyers on the street corner or yell at strangers with a megaphone – I hated that back then and I still hate it now – but my style was to live in such a way that people went “wow, you really believe this stuff, let’s talk about that.” Believe it or not, it was quite effective. I had many friends who would never step foot in a church or open a Bible come to me often and ask serious, genuine questions: “What does the Bible really say about X?” “What’s your opinion on Y?” “Why Z?” They knew that I wouldn’t judge them, that I wasn’t trying to force my beliefs on them, and that I was educated enough to give them not only my opinion but also any popular alternate interpretations.
I bring that up to say this: I think the best way to handle the privacy paradox is to be the light yourself. A lot of people suggest a good way to reach your friends and family is to do dumb sh*t like start recording them when you’re together, go through their phones, hack their Facebook, etc. That’s awful. The privacy paradox is very real, and it just proves that your friends – or soon-to-be ex-friends – will think you’re a colossal ass and stop hanging out with you while continuing to use Facebook or Google or Amazon. It’s infuriating, it really is, but it’s beyond your control. You can’t forcibly change somebody’s mind by beating them over the head with your opinions, even if they are right opinions. The best you can do is to let them know where you stand and work on yourself. Hopefully, in time, they’ll ask you about it and maybe you can even sway a few people. This is a topic that overlaps a number of other blogs I’ve written, such as Why Your Individual Privacy Matters for the Wider Population, Why You (Yes You, Reading This) Need to Take the Lead in Privacy & Security, and How I’ve Convinced People Around Me to Care About Privacy.
Ultimately, as I said up top, this blog is not a call to action, rather is to raise awareness. The privacy paradox – whatever name it goes by – is a real thing that you should be aware of. Your friends may be hemorrhaging data to Big Tech and living in hypocrisy – either out of ignorance or convenience – but that doesn’t mean you should take them up on that lifestyle, whether for a good purpose or to show them the error of their ways. It’s ultimately something you’ll just have to accept. Personally I have a reputation for being kind of a jerk among my social circles: Nate is a guy who will tell you the truth without sugarcoating it. “Yeah, that dress does kind of make you look fat.” “Yeah, you are kind of in the wrong in this argument.” “Yeah, that was a really stupid thing to say/do and you should probably apologize.” I’m fortunate enough that me going “hey, just wanted to make sure you’re aware: Amazon is licensing racist facial recognition technology to cops, so if you’re gonna be all ‘defund the police’ that means you gotta stop using Amazon” is actually a pretty common thing for me to say where my friends will typically roll their eyes and go “yeah, I know” to which I say “okay, just making sure you were aware. You do you.” I don’t keep harping on it, I don’t go “but don’t you see the hypocrisy?” They know that whenever they want to make a change, I’ll be more than happy to recommend alternatives or help them mitigate the existing services. And sometimes they go “oh, actually I didn’t know that” and I can go “yeah, I can send you a few articles if you want.” And that opens the door for us to talk about alternatives to Amazon or ways to reduce their data collection.
I feel like this blog was a little all-over-the-place and I apologize, but when I read that Reddit post earlier it stuck with me because I, too, have seen that mentality in action. Like I said, this post is to call attention to it. It’s a real thing that we have to be aware of as we interact with non-privacy people. It doesn’t make sense and it’s frustrating, but humans are illogical creatures and that means we have to learn how to deal with that fact as we push for change and progress in the future. Live long and prosper, I guess.
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