What to Actually Worry About When it Comes to Your Privacy

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Internet activism (Shutterstock)

Jeff Jarvis, the man behind, is a vocal champion of sharing and Jaron Lanier,  'the father of virtual reality', is more skeptical of the economics of opening up online. They wrestled on the issue of inequality in privacy, who knows what about our data, the humanity of sharing, and even what all this means for your health insurance.

Jarvis is also a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, and the author of Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live. Lanier is also a computer scientist, composer, visual artist and the author of Who owns the Future?, out now in paperback. 

Can two 'experts at the internet' agree on what is scary out there on the web and what isn't?

On what ‘They’ know about what you know (about what they know):

Jeff Jarvis: “I have a transaction there that I chose to make [with Amazon]. I have no transaction, no transparency, there is no accountability for the NSA in the executive, judiciary, legislative – journalists were shut off. We were left with the accountability of last resort which was whistleblowers, so that is the issue when it comes to government.”

Jaron Lanier: Here I have to say that what you’re saying just sounds bizarre to me. I live in the sausage factory and I’ve sold a company to Google and have worked with Microsoft and Apple and all of them and I gotta tell ya, there’s no transparency. You have no idea what they’re doing and there’s only an illusion of it because they’re consumer-facing companies that create that illusion for you… It is theater. It’s not real.”

On how big data makes insurance better (or worse): 

Lanier: “I was a consultant to … the largest American private health insurance consortium, and there was this moment where the CEO was at this retreat and he said, “My god, with all this data our business reverses totally. Our strategy has to become opposite of what it once was. It used to be that to grow we’d have to insure as many people as possible, but now that we can know them as individuals we’ll be more profitable if we can insure as few as possible – specifically the ones who need it the least.”

Jarvis: “This is why Obamacare is so necessary, because it gives you the right to have health insurance no matter what the data say about you. The issue isn’t there’s data about you. Indeed, I would argue we have to have less stigma about disease, more protection for your employment, more protection for your insurance about disease, and the more we can open up data about disease the better off society is going to be.”

On why the information economy is like favelas, kind of:

Lanier: “It’s just like in finance, what’s said often and is very true is that we’ve socialized risk while privatizing the benefits, and we’re doing exactly the same thing with information. We’re privatizing the benefits and creating these incredible instant fortunes for What’s App or whatever. Meanwhile everybody is losing security or losing wealth because we’re entering into an informal economy as if we were some kind of favela or slum.”

On Kodak Cameras (yep, Kodak Cameras):

Jarvis: “[The first Kodak camera was released in 1890] It freaked people out, we didn’t know what to do about it. It took a while for us to negotiate our norms around that and then indeed we did. And now people are worried that you’re going to take your Google glass into restrooms and take pictures of people’s private parts. As if somehow the technology is going to make you do stupid and evil and awful things. We have to have more faith in humanity at some level here.”

On monetizing your data as a solution:

Lanier: “Accountants are in a way more powerful than police. If there’s money at stake, somebody will chase it. And that might create this moderate thing where you can set the price of your information, which equals how much privacy you want and people can come to different decisions.”

How uncomfortable are you with companies recommending products to you based on what you've searched for online?

-- One of the questions in our Privacy Conundrums Quiz

EVENT: Author's Talk with Jaron Lanier: Who Owns the Future? At Cooper Union, Friday, March 7 at 6:30 p.m.


Jeff Jarvis and Jaron Lanier

Comments [60]

julian from murray hill

for someone who harps on about "generosity" and "sharing" Jeff Jarvis constantly interrupts people and talks over them. What an a–hole.

Aug. 01 2014 11:28 AM

I noticed that, during the pageload, there was a payload loading from '' that is tracking my pageview & presumably my high engagement typing this comment.

Aug. 01 2014 11:20 AM
YR from Manhattan

Use alternate mail services like sure Russia is tracking you .. I don't live in Russia.. so I don't care what they know about me .. I just know they aren't sharing it with any one that I know

Aug. 01 2014 11:06 AM
michelle rogers from Rome

Would really like better coverage of this topic. Didn't feel the debate worked at all. Really important issue ! Please do better with this topic, people are anxious and have real concerns but this debate was a like a fox news mess

Mar. 05 2014 11:01 AM

As usual jgarbuz comes up short in the clue department. Lanier is completely opposed to collectivism including Linux! Here is a quote from an interview with him available on Amazon:

"This is where we find our greatest point of disagreement. I am amazed by the power of the collective to enthrall people to the point of blindness. Collectivists adore a computer operating system called LINUX, for instance, but it is really only one example of a descendant of a 1970s technology called UNIX. If it weren’t produced by a collective, there would be nothing remarkable about it at all....Collectivists confuse ideology with achievement"

Mar. 04 2014 10:00 PM
Michael Villacres from Queens, NY

Really lastly, ...with both arms open. You can't look to the future with one eye open with the other squinting to avoid the warnings about cyberspaces' and technology's cons.
You can get hacked, exposed, humiliated, your identity stolen, etc; these are not opinions or empty thoughts. These are real possibilities AND they are real because they have happened; to consumers, customers, companies, government agencies, news organizations, etc; it can happen to you or anyone at any given time.
The convenience that technology and the INTERNET brings is good and can help humanity BUT it also brings with it problems and consequences for those who do not recognize the dangers that comes with all new technology. It is wrong for humanity to think that newer technology is perfect when it has been designed, made, and will be used by the imperfect beings known as: HUMANS. Good day.

Mar. 04 2014 04:08 PM
Michael Villacres from Queens, NY

Lastly, in response to Mr. Jeff Jarvis' overall arugment, I completely disargree with him respecfully. I agree with his good intentions about the sharing of data in cyberspace, in general, is a good thing. For example, during the PBS' NOVA science program's November 2012 episode titled: "What will the future be like?" they showed one of computer scientist Adrien Treuille's groundbreaking crowd-sourcing games, FoldIt. Which helps in protein folding and medical research; that's good.

NSA e-mail spying, Google's saving of ALL your searches, e-mails, etc; Retail store chain data breeches, I.E. Target, Michael's, etc; that's bad. Mr. Jarvis is wrong that the American and global public should JUST look at the current/new world of technology, the internet, and our connected society and embrace the pros (problem solving crowd-sourcing, call for help just about anywhere, etc;) with both arms open.

Here is NOVA's Privacy and Technology quiz; to combine with WNYC Brain Lehrer Show's quiz:

Mar. 04 2014 03:52 PM
Eric from Albany CA

Mr. Lanier and Mr. Jarvis implied that the Affordable Care Act ("ObamaCare") is a game changer for the health industry in the U.S. because it effectively prohibits underwriting based on pre-existing health conditions in the individual health insurance market. That is true as far as it goes, but the law does NOT eliminate all risk-pooling problems in the commercial insurance market. One of the most important sources of risk segmentation problems is the Federal ERISA law that was enacted by Congress in 1974. This law permits employers to self-insure their health insurance plans, which means that a large, profitable company with a relatively young and/or healthy work force (e.g., Google, Goldman Sachs) can effectively remove itself from commercial insurance risk pool. The Affordable Care Act did very little to address this fundamental source of inequity in the U.S. health insurance sector.

Mar. 04 2014 03:36 PM
Michael Villacres from Queens, NY

Thirdly, on November 29, 2011 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), announced a settlement with Facebook (FB) over an alleged violation of FB's privacy promises with its consumers. NO one, not FB or Goggle or the National Security Agency (NSA) or contractors; no one can be trusted blindly because we, the public, do not know until the story breaks or the book is published, what the facts really are.

Young People, under age 18, High School students (especially) and college students have been repeatedly told to think twice before they post anything or tweet a thought, picture, video, etc; on the INTERNET. Because when they go, we adults too who post and share; to a job interview, a date, etc; that is when we will all want to have a "delete this post" app or better yet use the "INTERNET delete" button (sorry to say there is NO such button.
When you show your kids or "unicorn" (see TLDR blog site) the world wide web remember the sign that reads: "BEWARE!"

Mar. 04 2014 03:20 PM
Michael Villacres from Queens, NY

Secondly, on WNYC's OnTheMedia show on July 6, 2012, they talked about how the Manhattan DA used a Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protester's Twitter tweets, of three months, to be used as evidence against the protester. This is because the Manhattan Judge believed that “If you post a tweet, just like if you scream it out the window, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Mar. 04 2014 02:55 PM
Michael Villacres from Queens, NY

I totally agree with Mr. Jaron Lanier's basic argument. That we, the American public need to be aware and question all the "benefits" of the INTERNET, mobile technology, and our current inter-connected society; both American and globally.
Firstly, on the Leonard Lopate show, on May 12, 2011, author Scott Cleland talked about his book "Search and Destroy: Why you can't trust Google Inc."
Also on April 11, 2011, author and Google expert, Steven Levy talked about his book "How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives."
I forget which author says it but one of them says how Google keeps EVERY search term you enter, Gmail e-mail, your YouTube (which Google owns) profile and videos you watch even if you do not have a Google/YouTube account (they track your IP Address), etc. Bottom line Google doesn't understand the concept of "privacy." With Google its': "Privacy? What's that?"

Mar. 04 2014 02:07 PM

The genius of bin Laden's 9/11 airplanes was just the beginning of the Orwellian surveillance nightmare that we giddily participate in.

Mar. 04 2014 01:51 PM
Luddite from Unvirtual world

Agree with Ben from Brooklyn and s. Bla bla bla on speed. Since all this info is virtual, how does anyone prove it's true?

Mar. 04 2014 12:22 PM
resident alien from Williamsburg

i don't know if lanier is a socialist, he is definitely an idealist and a futurist, basically a techno hippie...;-) i.e. with his music. that's why i never idolized him, but i respect him (after seeing him wandering the isles of Fry's more than 20 years ago) for his pioneering work in VR, his creative thinking and his intellect...he is definitely the smartest guy in the room! as a pioneer and futurist no one can be always getting things right, but lanier has a better track record than most.
i don't know if everyone had too much coffee, but i'm sure some had something to smoke...

Mar. 04 2014 12:19 PM
PJ from New Jersey


RE: Jeff Jarvis

One who interrupts a person while that person is making a point is either insecure about his or her own point of view or hoping to create chaos in the conversation.

If it due to insecurity, their desire is to make the other person defensive, which has the dual purpose of making the other person seem hostile while also interrupting the logical flow of the other person's argument. If it is for the purpose of creating chaos, well that's much simpler; the confusion caused by chaos ultimately destroys the clarity of both arguments and leads the audience to tune out (mentally or literally).

Interruption is also an effective tool for controlling a debate because by bullying your way through a debate and making your voice the dominant voice the audience more easily recalls what you have said as your were the more aggressive speaker.

Just tune in to any seriously biased media (left or right) and you'll see these strategies being used. They are the tools of the trade for the small minded and the inarticulate.

Mar. 04 2014 12:04 PM

What I like about WNYC is civil, rational discourse. For that reason, please either don't have Jeff Jarvis on again, or at least give him a stern lecture beforehand. He was unbelievably rude to the other guest, interrupting, talking over him, even calling him names. He's also lousy radio - he talks way too fast, using way too much jargon. I disagree with much of what he says, but I've disagreed with lots of guests before, and I've never written a note like this.

Mar. 04 2014 11:40 AM
Ann from Brave New World

I hooked up a new printer last night, and when I was downloading the software to my computer, Hewlett Packard compelled me to register my printer so that they could collect data from my computer on an ongoing basis. I hadn't realized, until that moment, that ultimately nothing was sacred, not even my un-emailed word documents that I might be printing with Hewlett Packard's ink in the former privacy of my home. I imagine that Apple (and others) can or will be able to use the camera on its computers to capture footage of us in our home. Or the GPS on our iphones to track us.

It seems, however, that this talk about what bothers us and the controls on our privacy that we'd like is almost irrelevant. Big Brother is listening, but doesn't really care.

Mar. 04 2014 11:30 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Sure, it's great that women who wanted to discuss breast cancer got the screening programs to stop blocking all use of "breast," but they shouldn't have needed to fight for that in the 1st place. Like the whole point of this discussion, the problem is other people making decisions for us w/out asking us.

Mar. 04 2014 11:29 AM

The caller who dealt with peoples' permissions is correct. We must bring an open 2 way contract into data transactions which may also involve direct compensation to each person for the permission & authorization to sell the data which must include which data in which form to which buyers, etc.

Those affected by the web's forced "generosity" are those who have NO protection and no information in these blind "transactions."

Mar. 04 2014 11:28 AM
Jennifer from NYC

My breast cancer diagnosis not only left me with healthcare debt that put my credit in jeopardy, but it has also impeded my search for a job after being downsized in my previous specialty (during treatments) in a male-dominated field - litigation. Anyone who thinks that the imparting of that type of information doesn't hurt each of us, unnecessarily, is dreaming. Or not accustomed to daily discrimination.

Mar. 04 2014 11:28 AM
Lauren from Bed-Stuy

I don't understand: Why have we conceded the definition of "our information" to the INTERPRETIVE algorithms of those companies? The value of this information is, one of your guests pointed out, RELATIVE to the PIECES of WORD-BASED information they are gathering on other people. That is interpretation, a crazy plaid of reason and emotion.

Mar. 04 2014 11:26 AM
Michael Bernstein from Cold Spring NY

I think that ultimately the glut of data on each of us will paradoxically make us more anonymous. Conflicting data, outdated information, and overlap creates so much garbage that the no ones identity is really known. Everyday I get emails that address me as doctor and invite me to symposia. I am not a doctor. I get Facebook ads for things I have no interest in.

Mar. 04 2014 11:25 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Robert from RBC

Who asks, "And what's wrong with socialists jgarbuz?!"

My answer: Go live on a kibbutz or a commune and find out for yourself over time. I did.

Mar. 04 2014 11:24 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Robert from RBC

Who asks, "And what's wrong with socialists jgarbuz?!"

My answer: Go live on a kibbutz or a commune and find out for yourself over time. I did.

Mar. 04 2014 11:23 AM
Helgu from NYC

GOOGLE has no complaints because Google has no customer service department or complaints hotline. There is NO WAY to complain to Google except through forums where shills who may or may not work there give you intimidating

Mar. 04 2014 11:22 AM

PLEASE control Jarvis. He is like a rabid dog. He won't let Lanier finish. I really think Brian owes Lanier an apology.

Mar. 04 2014 11:22 AM
Nathan from NYC

I get the impression that Jeff Jarvis is confusing the cost of transmission of information with the cost of its production. The idea that "information wants to be free" or "should" be free is based on the false idea that information is produced for free. It's not, of course, it costs money to produce news, research, etc. (as WNYC's fund raising drives demonstrate). The cost of transmission is remarkably low, which makes us think that information should be free. If we think of a physical commodity, the fallacy of thinking it "should be free" becomes much more obviously ridiculous: iron ore is expensive to produce, but comparatively inexpensive to ship via rail or ocean liner. Should iron ore be free, or given away by generous companies? Unless you think the concept of production and ownership in Western society are completely wrong (take that Locke), than information cannot be seen as free.

Mar. 04 2014 11:22 AM
Amy from Manhattan

The idea that humans base important decisions on rationality hasn't worked so well in economics--why should we expect it to work any better when it comes to our information?

And people living in slums may have "lovely" sharing networks, but they're still *living in a slum*! Got a "solution" for that?

Mar. 04 2014 11:21 AM
Michael D. D. White from Brooklyn Heights

It is frightening to think that a vendor will know enough about me to raise the price for me individually on a particular product the exact day I need to buy it. And that they know the top price I am wiling to pay for it that day.

Mar. 04 2014 11:21 AM
Michael L Bergelson from Morningside Heights

Jarvis' attitude about "don't give me" -- is a recipe for narrowing our visions and limiting our horizons. What will happen to serendipitously discovering something new?

It's the continuation of the echo chamber that plagues the internet and how it is used by too many.

Mar. 04 2014 11:18 AM
Amy from Manhattan

I've wondered about DuckDuckGo, because it's Yahoo!-based. When I had q's. about Yahoo!'s terms & privacy policy, they refused to answer them unless I joined Yahoo! first. In other words, to get the info I needed in order to decide if I wanted to join Yahoo!, I had to join Yahoo! w/out having that info.

I didn't join.

Mar. 04 2014 11:17 AM
John A

This could have been the whole show. Too much to fit in one segment. But congrats at scoring two excellent guests.

Mar. 04 2014 11:16 AM
Robert from RBC

And what's wrong with socialists jgarbuz?!

Mar. 04 2014 11:16 AM
Michael from Manhattan

Have faith in humanity? With Hunter Moore? With reddit forums dedicated to "creepshots?" You want us to have faith in these people? Or just pretend that this sort of thing does not exist?

Mar. 04 2014 11:15 AM
Michael L Bergelson from Morningside Heights

Decades ago, William Safire called for "Opt In" instead of "Opt out" as the caller just mentioned. He clearly saw where our society was heading.

(He was also strongly against government involvement in gambling, under the bogus justification of revenue enhancement. He was correct about that as well.)

Mar. 04 2014 11:15 AM
Robert from NYC

I agree with Susan.

Mar. 04 2014 11:13 AM

And Jaron's laugh is freakin' adorable.

Mar. 04 2014 11:13 AM

People want to make ideas free and get rid of copyright, build a sharing community ect. - that is, until someone takes their idea.

Mar. 04 2014 11:11 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Lanier is a socialist, that's all.

Mar. 04 2014 11:11 AM

Thank you, Jaron!!

Mar. 04 2014 11:10 AM

LOVE Jaron! This has degenerated into a mess. Where ar4 you Brian? WHy aren't you moderating? All this is the the other guy trying to say his ideas are correct and Jaron's are flawed. No me gusta. Step in, Brian.

Mar. 04 2014 11:10 AM

these guys are thoroughly over caffeinated.
give each other a moment to actually finish a thought.

Mar. 04 2014 11:10 AM

…guess the naive guy is Jeff Jarvis.


Mar. 04 2014 11:09 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I used to idolize Janier for his work in virtual reality, but not so much since I revealed himself as a socialist.

Mar. 04 2014 11:08 AM
Barb from NYC

"Generosity"?? Are you kidding. These Silicon Valley firms are making billions from our web activity. Let them pay us for it. Read Jaron Lanier's book, Who Owns The Future?

Mar. 04 2014 11:08 AM

The naive guy is DOWNRIGHT DUMB!

Mar. 04 2014 11:06 AM
Ben from Brooklyn

Jaron is a smart guy. But WOW is this lousy radio.

People ranting, talking over each other, the conversation going nowhere.

Blah blah blah.

Mar. 04 2014 11:06 AM

The guy calling the other guy naive is ABSOLUTELY right!

TOTALLY naive!!

Mar. 04 2014 11:06 AM
Michael L Bergelson from Morningside Heights

And there are no elections that put the people running Google, Apple, Facebook, there, nor to remove them....

Our government, imperfect as it is, at least we have SOME recourse, however feeble.

Mar. 04 2014 11:05 AM

One of the guests comments on the "agreed" transaction with Google/FB, etc.

What about the lack of compensation to the people whose data is sold. If each person could decide what data they were willing to sell & specify the form - anonymous, open IP address, open physical address, etc. then each user could be compensated by all companies selling that data.

As a "contract" transaction, those whose data are sold are the least informed as to use, number of and $$ amounts of sales of that information, personal safety factors,e.g., sales of names, addresses, phone numbers of rape victims and other vulnerable victims.

Mar. 04 2014 11:05 AM
Michael L Bergelson from Morningside Heights

And the correlations arrived at by the private companies that Lanier referenced can often be incorrect, as earlier segments alluded to and those mistakes can have dire consequences. The private companies have no responsibility to get it right.

Go try to correct it -- if you ever learn about it.

Mar. 04 2014 11:03 AM
John A

Big corporations are big government without hope of law... Except from our government.

Mar. 04 2014 11:01 AM
Michael L Bergelson from Morningside Heights

The use of the information??? Have there NOT ALWAYS been folks who violate every law & rule for their own benefit?

That's no protection!

Mar. 04 2014 11:00 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I think the creation of "family court" has violated the privacy of the family and what goes on in the home. Parents can have children taken away from the home over slender accusations, usually against the father in most cases. Husbands (and sometimes wives) can be taken out of the home purely based on very tenuous evidence of "abuse."
However, feminists and pro-abortion people claim that the mother has the right to abort another human being based on a rather slim claim of privacy rights, i.e., Roe vs. Wade.

Mar. 04 2014 10:58 AM
Seth Peckstiff

Martin, Lefties are more pro-privacy than almost any other group. There are Libertarians on both ends of the political spectrum. You're really reaching beyond credibility with this one.

Mar. 04 2014 10:58 AM
JT from NJ

"The user interface designs that arose from the ideology of the computing cloud make people less kind. Trolling is not a string of isolated incidents, but the status quo in the online world." -J.Lanier

Here here, MC. Just turn off your radio.

Mar. 04 2014 10:57 AM
Barb from NYC

Lanier's book is FANTASTIC. I urge everyone to read it. I want to be PAID for my web contributions, and Mr. Lanier lays out a means to that end, so we could ALL benefit from our posts (not just the data miners).

Mar. 04 2014 10:56 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

What chutzpah here at the BLS ... the left whining about privacy after advocating for the government to administer so much of public and private life. Big government is intrusive government. What clowns.

This won't seem so quaint if Ted Cruz becomes President.

Mar. 04 2014 10:52 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I believe when one has chosen to communicate with others outside the home, one has voluntarily compromised their right to privacy. Privacy should be limited to the walls of ones own home. Even a landlord has the right to get a warrant to enter the apartment if there is suspicion you are destroying his property within a rented home. The right to privacy extends only to your own private property, and even within those walls if the police have good reason to suspect that you are engaged in criminal activity or terrorism, they have the right to get a warrant to search it.

Mar. 04 2014 10:48 AM
oscar from ny

First of all privacy cost money that's why the intruders exacerbate every avenue for far as im concerned I wish they would go thru my files not only did i leave them some treats but also some tricks so they can enjoy and we can hack.
I also know that to become a king you gotta thread lightly ..haven't you heard the story in early time about a king who had two sons and one day he was got drunk and passed away in the floor and one son came in and saw him naked by surprise and so he ran to tell his brother who came in to see his father but walked backwards so not to see his father naked and came in with a blanket to cover him..when the king found out about this guess who he gave his kingdom too..right now the devil is climaxing so stay alert..

Mar. 04 2014 10:41 AM

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