Privacy is Expensive

Google’s Sundar Pichai, in an opt-ed for the New York Times.

Our mission compels us to take the same approach to privacy. For us, that means privacy cannot be a luxury good offered only to people who can afford to buy premium products and services. Privacy must be equally available to everyone in the world.

Matthew Green, a cryptographer at Johns Hopkins University on the elaborate encryption scheme built into Apple’s “Find My” feature, which encrypts the location data from Apple and all the stranger devices that are use to relay the information back to the user (via Wired).

I give them nine out of 10 chance of getting it right,” Green says. “I have not seen anyone actually deploy anything like this to a billion people. The actual techniques are pretty well known in the scientific sense. But actually implementing this will be pretty impressive.

It turns out that the technology that will enable us to enjoy various services while honoring our privacy is still being developed, and is not yet widely available. Features like “Find My” would be much easier and cheaper to implement without this encryption.

Therefore, although Sundar Pichai tells us that privacy should be equally available to everyone for free, that is an unrealistic approach in the near-term. Somebody has to pay the bills and the bills are substantial. Ultimately, if privacy is to be maintained, then the price of privacy has to be included in the cost of the service, whether it is bundled in the price of a device or not.

Offering a cheap service that provides a lower level of privacy is not an option if we consider privacy as a fundamental human right. Just as pharmaceuticals have to maintain a very high and costly level of safety, regardless of whether it is a cheap drug or a cutting-edge million dollar therapy, the same level of privacy should be assured for the rich and poor alike.

It is still debatable whether Sundar Pichai’s definition of privacy – that corporations can hold on to unlimited amounts of user data as long as they do not pass it on to third parties (except the US government maybe) – will be accepted by legislators and the public. On the other hand however, it could prove unrealistic to require the same level as what Apple is doing due to technical difficulties and costs, and it might even be against the interests of the governments that wish to maintain the capability to spy on people.

It’s easy to say that privacy should not be a luxury good, but the reality is much more complex then that.

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