I worry about whether we want to make privacy into a luxury good that only the rich can afford

Dragnet Nation

Julia Angwin is an award-winning investigative journalist at the independent news organization ProPublica.

We have slowly come to the realization that using free online services usually meant giving away our data. Is the “pay-for-performance” model you recommend the only viable option?

I grew up in the Silicon Valley with parents who were software programmers. In our family, a fun activity was to go to Fry’s and buy some new software in a shrink-wrapped box. In other words, I grew up with the idea that software was a high-quality product that people should pay for.

Nowadays, however, we are used to the idea that software is free – it is an app or a game that we download. We pay by allowing advertisers to reach us through those free software applications. However, that business model means that software developers need to write their software with their primary customer in mind – the advertiser.

I worry that we won’t be able to convince software developers to place our privacy interests as top priority if we aren’t paying them. That’s why I try to donate to or purchase privacy-protecting software whenever possible. That’s my so-called “pay for performance” model.

Of course, there are other ways to achieve the same goal. Lawmakers can pass privacy regulations that limit how our personal data is used. Free software makers can – and do – write software to protect privacy with philanthropic grants.

As you pointed out, even suspicionless people are being monitored, even more so if they are closely or remotely linked to a person who is under suspicion. In an age when the “networking spirit” is the rule, will we have to be more careful with the public display of our relations and contacts?

In our Dragnet Nation, technology is cheap and powerful enough that institutions don’t need a compelling reason to sweep up our information. They can just grab the data and figure out what to do with it later.
I decided that one bit of data that I didn’t want swept up was my network of associations – my friends, acquaintances and business associates. As a journalist, I felt that those associations could be too revealing about my sources. And as a citizen, I simply felt that those associations were nobody’s business but mine. So I deleted my LinkedIn account and unfriended everyone on Facebook.

Of course, these networking sites offer benefits that I will miss out on. But so far, I have not lost any actual friends or jobs because of leaving those websites.

You quoted Moxie Marlinspike, a computer security researcher, who said “There is not really a market for consumer privacy software”. However it seems that a lot of software developers are now launching into the privacy market and the protection of personal information. Has it become a marketing tool like any other? 

Since the Snowden revelations, there has been an increase in companies offering privacy services – both free and paid. I welcome the rising ‘pay for performance’ market. But I also worry about whether we want to make privacy into a luxury good that only the rich can afford.

I am also concerned about whether shoppers can verify if the privacy services are delivering on their promises. I, for instance, signed up for a $35 service that promised to opt me out of the largest data brokers, and when I checked, the company had failed to complete more than half of my opt-outs. The service has since been suspended.

Did you encourage your friends and relatives to follow you and opt out of major tracking and data-collecting services?

I believe adults should make their own decisions about whether they want to take any steps to protect their privacy. But I do think that I have a role to play with my children. I don’t think it’s fair for me to create a digital footprint for them before they are ready to decide how they would like to present themselves to the world. And I also teach them how to protect themselves online.

As a result, my household is split: my husband doesn’t use any privacy-protecting tools but my kids love them. They think it’s fun to see how many companies are trying to track their online movements, and to send me secret encrypted messages. My daughter even started a business building strong passwords using a method called Diceware.  

Editorial reviews (3 reviews)

"Dragnet Nation" is certainly a useful, well-reported study.

Kirkus Reviews : Dragnet Nation (February 26, 2014)

A solid work for both privacy freaks and anyone seeking tips on such matters as how to strengthen passwords (make them longer and avoid simple dictionary words).

The book is pacy and eye-opening – but don’t count on it making you feel any better.