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Privacy, ninjas and digital houses

“Privacy is a public good. When I say that, I don’t mean that in a “feel good” way. I mean that in the literal sense that the more people use privacy solutions, the more privacy each one of them gets.”

Vitalik, during his Dappcon fireside chat

Vitalik says that privacy is a public good.
Juan Benet says that privacy is about security.
United Nations says that privacy is a human right.

So why do so many people still treat privacy as something for hoodie-and-sunglasses-wearing hackers from the 90s action movies?

I think we have some communication problems here. 

We all agree that privacy is useful, but it’s hard to convince skeptics who counter with the “but what about criminals?” card. Especially when Tornado Cash devs end up in jail, legitimizing this stance.

So what can we do?

A few years ago, when John Oliver recorded the episode with Snowden, he faced a similar challenge. So Oliver asked people what do they think about the government’s “dick pic” program“

And although it’s a comedy, it highlights something subtle yet important. 

It’s hard to imagine online privacy unless it has ties to the physical world. And physical and online privacies are very different.

We live in a public world

In the physical world, as soon as you leave your house, everyone can see you.

Everyone in the street can see what car you drive.
Everyone in your presence can see what emotions you feel.
Everyone in the shop can see what you spent your money on.

The physical world is - by default - public. The only fully private space is our house (and other private properties). And that’s also only partially true because if you stay close to the window, some nosy neighbor can watch you.

So why are we not appalled by the lack of privacy in the physical world?

First, because no one cares about you. Unless you’re a neighbor, a celebrity, or look very distinct, people don’t look at you at all.

Secondly, if someone followed you, you’d know. You’d feel someone’s eyes on your back. You’d see the car following your every step. You’d feel that something is wrong.

Thirdly, it’d be weird to maintain privacy IRL. Imagine a guy walking around the city in a mask. Would people feel comfortable around him? Probably not.

Wearing a mask is so weird that even celebrities don’t go beyond wearing sunglasses. Despite the fact that some of them - like Cristiano Ronaldo - dream about being able to go out with their friends like normal people.

Why the government isn’t spying on your house

But thankfully, although the outside world is default public, you can maintain some privacy in your house. And there are things you’d rather do behind closed doors - like dressing up, using the bathroom, or having a date with your partner.

No one would say it’s weird that you like to do these things privately. And no one would suggest you are a criminal because you don’t want to let the government install CCTV cameras in your house.

But who knows? Maybe in this house, you are actually laundering money, producing meth, or killing people? That wouldn't be surprising as, according to the FBI, most violent crimes happen in houses.

And because houses are private, these crimes are harder to investigate. So in a way, our house privacy facilitates crime. So why do we let people stay private in their own houses? Well, probably because it’d be weird not to let them stay private. 

The outrage from people accusing the government of following Orwell’s “1984” playbook would not be worth finding a few more criminals. It’s just a tradeoff that governments do.

But online, it’s different. Online, we don’t have our cozy houses.

Online world is full of ninjas

We said that the lack of privacy in the offline world doesn’t bother us. And that’s because people don’t care about us, it’s easy to find out someone is following us, and it would be weird to wear a mask.

But in the digital world, people care about us.

There are companies—smartphone producers, apps, Internet providers—that want to follow your every step. Sometimes, they do it to optimize their app, and sometimes, they do it to sell more ads. Whatever their intentions, they care about following you.

And it’s not hard to do it because, in a digital world, you don’t feel that someone follows you. You just browse the web as usual.

How do you know if anyone analyzes which article you read? How do you know if someone tracks what supplements you bought? Or even if you have a real spy app or keylogger installed? Most people couldn’t tell.

And that’s why many people don’t care about their digital privacy. It’s just hard to notice that it’s being compromised.

Now, let’s say you buy a newspaper, and in a package comes a real ninja. He’s impossible to notice (he’s a ninja, right?), but you might sometimes feel his presence. He looks over your shoulder to analyze which articles you have read, and which ads you look at. Another ninja analyzes what products you buy online. And another one checks what anon identity you use on Reddit.

That would feel weird, right?

But this is how the online world works.

A team of ninjas is watching you all the time. They follow your every step and record it with GoPros. Sometimes, their cameras can’t catch all the details because of some privacy policy. But most of the time, they do follow you.

And some of these ninjas talk with each other and trade notes to get a better vision of your online behavior. And the most powerful ninja - the government - can ask all of them for reports.

This “Snowden” scene catches the (dramatized) gist of it:

But there’s also one more important difference between the online and offline worlds. Remember the weird idea of wearing a mask on the street? 

If you use a privacy-centric phone or a VPN, it’s just another app that works in the background. Other people don’t notice it. And you don’t even feel that you protect your privacy. It’s much more convenient and normal than wearing a mask.

So, although being followed online seems less weird, so does maintaining privacy. 

And most people aren’t privacy maxis. Most people don’t want to walk around the online world in masks. They just want digital houses where they can do normal things privately. 

Would that mean that some people would commit more crimes in these houses? Probably yes. But if the alternative is the government installing metaphorical CCTV cameras everywhere, it’s a trade-off worth making.

So what should we do about it? People need to understand these three things in order to start caring about privacy.

Privacy is about tradeoffs

First, there are people who care about your data. Second, these people are following you. And third, it’s not weird to maintain your privacy.

As you can see by clicking the links, Apple even recorded ads for each of these arguments. So why can the iPhone be private, and crypto cannot? I guess because the iPhone is a universal tool that doesn’t touch money outside the banking system. So you can’t say that iPhones are used for money laundering (though you can claim iPhones are used for terrorism)

Also, the iPhone’s privacy tradeoff has been accepted because their smartphones are used by millions of people around the world. if iPhones were used only by tech people, it’d be easier to say that this privacy is used only by hackers. But because your mom has an iPhone, and so do US senators, they understand why it’s important not to have your messages leaked. 

And if it facilitates crime in some edge cases? So be it. 

If we zoom out, we notice that humanity has a long history of accepting tech that facilitates crime.

Cars made robberies easier. And we still use them. 

Banks made money laundering at scale easier. And we still use it. 

The Internet made hacking easier. And we still use it.

Social media has been used by ISIS to coordinate terrorists. And we still use it.

We still use all that tech because we — as a society — accepted the trade-off. We weighed the benefits of the tech and decided that they were more important than the costs of facilitating crime in some edge cases.

So, one of the best ways to get more people to support crypto privacy is to get more people to use it. Then, they will understand why - for some of their transactions - they might want a cozy, private digital house.

It doesn’t mean we should stop advocating. But I think until we get enough adoption, it will be an uphill battle, like convincing people in 2010 that iPhones should be private. Doable but hard.

Thankfully, sometimes the current financial system makes our jobs a little bit easier:

This post is written as part of the Kiwi x Dappcon challenge. Since I am one of the organizers, it doesn't take part in the competition, I just wrote it to spread the word.

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