What to Actually Worry About When it Comes to Your Privacy

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Jeff Jarvis, the man behind buzzmachine.com, 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.