Oversight

Online Privacy Isn’t Dead—If We Fight for It

Breaking down the four fallacies around online privacy

Trevor Timm
GEN
Published in
6 min readApr 8, 2019

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Photo: Westend61/Getty

You’ve probably heard the line a million times before.

In any debate about privacy — whether it’s among friends or on Capitol Hill — both defenders of surveillance and privacy nihilists will inevitably trot out the same tired trope: “Privacy is dead. It’s never coming back, so this is a pointless debate to begin with.”

This is just one of the many fallacious answers used by those who defend or excuse corporate and government prowling, alongside such gems as “How can you complain? You willingly gave away your privacy to Facebook,” and “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” These statements are clichés in the most nefarious sense, they’re boilerplate platitudes that reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of user preferences, and more dangerously, they give corporations and governments every excuse to continue down the same path of snooping.

Below, I’ve broken down the four worst anti-privacy generalities and shown why they are worrisomely off-base.

“People willingly give away their privacy to Facebook”

Perhaps the most common anti-privacy argument, this one implies that because you’ve opted into Facebook, you’ve therefore renounced any right to complain about privacy violations. It’s an oversimplified and misleading logic. Yes, most people are aware at this point that Facebook sells targeted advertising on the backs of its two billion users. But are they really making an informed choice when they sign up for the service?

Studies have shown many people have no idea how much information Facebook actually mines. For example, deep in Facebook’s settings you can see at least 98 different data points that Facebook collects on each individual: your exact location, your income and net worth, and your home value. A recent survey showed that 74% of users did not know this list existed. And when they were informed, 51% “were not comfortable with Facebook collecting this information about them,” according to The Washington Post.

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Trevor Timm
GEN
Writer for

Trevor Timm is the executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation. His writing has appeared the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Intercept.