"Normal" people aren't the only ones who matter online

"Large group of smiling business people. Teamwork." by Kurhan. Courtesy of Shutterstock

If you want to understand why Silicon Valley startups keep tripping into privacy-related PR disasters, you could not do better than reading this attack on online privacy from Silicon Alley Insider editor Matt Rosoff.

Each time [a data breach] happens, bloggers and privacy zealots scream and yell and pull their hair out. In some cases, the companies are forced to apologize and cancel the offending feature. Sometimes, a few politicians grandstand so they can look like they're solving real problems and maybe the government gets involved and forces the companies to change a little bit.

But these flaps had exactly zero effect on Facebook's and Google's business. No effect. None. Nada. User growth, engagement, revenue — all kept going up without a blip. Normal people don't care.

By "normal" people, Rosoff means people like him, who must endure rather than hope for obscurity. But the assumptions clouding his rather privileged viewpoint expose themselves at once, as he embarks upon a classical dialogue between himself and a straw-man interlocutor angry at a hypothetical data breach.

So what are [bad guys] going to do with that info?

"Well, come on," you sputter. "Now they know where I live!"

Gosh. If you own a house in most places in the U.S., anybody can go down to the county records office and not only find out where you live, but also how much you paid for your house and how much you sold it for 10 years later. It's a matter of public record.

If he'd ever looked at the mortgage records slapped down here as a trump card against personal privacy, he'd know many homes are bought through legal fictions (such as LLCs) to preserve it.

Similarly deeply-considered answers follow. Criminals don't need personal info, he writes, because they can just "bash somebody in the face and steal their iPhone". Phone harassment? "Don't answer calls from numbers you don't know. Let them leave a voice mail". Stalking?

If you're worried about complete strangers stalking you, you're either famous or criminal — in which case it's time to get some security — or hopelessly neurotic.

One can only stare in mute, cringing horror, of the sort usually reserved for observing Ricky Gervais in character. The most Brentian moment is when Rosoff giggles at the idea of secret police tracking down dissidents via Foursquare checkins—then solemnly condemns state terror.

"But like I said at the beginning of this, normal people don't care."

Normal people, in this view, don't care what it's like to be a queer kid in a rural town, or a single woman seeking abortion advice in the South, or a silent victim of abuse or illness anonymously searching for kindred spirits. Such people, whose address books might expose embarrassing or even dangerous secrets, are abnormal.

It can be difficult to imagine how privacy failures could harm people totally unlike oneself. But it's another thing entirely to assume that they're undeserving of consideration, or to regard their advocates as Toohey-like ethical jobsworths out to cut down your journalistic subjects' entrepreneurial spirit.

Rosoff complains of empty moralizing. He suggests companies need not worry about privacy failures, and cites Facebook and Google's undaunted financial success. Alas, no. The experiences of multi-billion dollar companies are not illustrative of the risks faced by new startups. If some congresspersons want to make a name for themselves, a Today Show segment could ruin a little-known brand in ten hot morning minutes.

The article's dismissal of privacy issues is not as striking as the invisibility in it of people who aren't normal enough to matter. But what is there to lose in anticipating "abnormal" user expectations from the outset, when failing at that just keeps blowing up in people's faces over and over again?

As a screed, "Who Cares?" illustrates the author's contempt for privacy advocates. Its publication by a well-funded Silicon Valley news site, though, is a reminder of what they're up against.