Security or Privacy March 2019 • 4 minutes

I used to be quite sure of my position that privacy was more important than security. By that I mean when you face a trade off between security or privacy, I would be on the privacy side of that argument. That could be digital, in a sense that Firefox is a more private but less secure browser compared to Chrome, or physical, in a sense that facial recognition in public spaces is more secure but less private. As time goes on, I’m less convinced that privacy, or what people call privacy, is likely to work. I’m more inclined to say that privacy is somewhat of a luxury, to be reserved for the people and situations that demand it and not generally a widely held preference. Security is something that tends to be more popular in practice than in theory.

There is a spectrum of how people value individual freedom vs. group security where certain cities in China fall on one extreme and certain circles of Republicans in the US fall on the other. Without passing judgement on the practicality or theory of either group, it’s becoming more clear over time that the question of privacy or security in public spaces, or using widely available tools for communication, will be an either/or question. You can use Signal Private Messenger, which I still do, and get privacy from the powers that be. Likewise, you can use Facebook Messenger, which is easier to use, likely more hardened and secure, but very much less private than Signal. Similarly, you can have widespread facial recognition efforts spanning all the frequently used intersections in a city, which strongly favours security (less violent crime and faster resolution in the event that someone does decide to commit a violent crime) and less privacy for individuals.

I suspect that over time most people will choose security in almost all cases in practice. In theory they will say that they care about privacy, but in practice they will use Messenger, walk in cities that use facial recognition and happily provide biometrics so they can take TSA precheck to move through the airport faster. Nothing wrong with that either. That doesn’t mean the government needs Facebook-level privacy invasion into people’s bedrooms. It doesn’t mean that we have to make sure there is facial recognition everywhere. It doesn’t mean we need “lists” of people, sorted into good or bad. But I suspect it will happen, sooner rather than later.

The question is, what forms of privacy are worth trading off for security? I can think of several, and they do exist, the question is whether they become socially regulated or not. Likewise, what forms of security are worth trading off privacy? Facial recognition seems like something where it could do a great deal of good, and in practice when computers are doing the interpreting that doesn’t necessarily violate many people’s concept of privacy. Already, when you drive, police cars are equipped with continuous license plate scanning tech. Anyone who commits a bad deed driving is catalogued and later followed up with, all in a systematic and automated way. Does that mean we are going to either fight to remove the tech, or stop driving? I doubt both.

Have we descended into dystopia? Seems like it just means more efficient police and better driving. By that I mean in practice, rather than in theory. I’ve read the same books that advocate privacy for individuals instead of security for the group, and the possible ills of the reverse. I suspect certain countries will take it too far, and use these mechanisms as a form of undue oppression. I say undue because the dropping violent crime rate in cities that use facial recognition is an interesting and valid counter argument to concerns that it results in more net harm to people. Is it bad that the police are more efficient and effective? In a sense, no, and in another sense, yes. It’s valid to be concerned, but again hard to argue against.

Something people should consider is where they fall on this spectrum. Because of group survival dynamics, it takes a loud minority of the group as a whole to demand security before we end up with something highly secure. It only takes a few bad experiences to slip into a state where people are asking for security over privacy. Privacy is not a group survival mechanism, it’s somewhere in between a human right and an indulgent earned entitlement. It should be possible to have private moments, with others or by yourself, but I doubt it will be the default.