Our Quaint Notions About Privacy

A few years ago my auto insurance company offered me a substantial premium discount if I agreed to download their app to my cellphone and—in effect—allow them to track my driving. Whenever I open the app, I can see detailed maps of every place I visited, plus the number of times my speed was in excess of company-prescribed limits and the number of times I hit the brakes too hard (in their opinion).

The savings have indeed been substantial. But at what cost?

It didn’t take long for me to realize that the insurance company was happily sharing my driving destinations with whatever retailers were willing to pay for that information. That fact alone might cause some folks to refuse the discount. And I confess to a level of irritation on my part when I realized that the discount was as much about collecting data about my purchasing habits as it was about encouraging safe driving.

Spirited Reasoners, however, are not ones to engage in kneejerk reactions when they are faced with realizations like these. Often, such moments are teachable.

Being an avid reader of history, I began questioning the source of my irritation. After all, if I were living in a small town in the 18th or 19th Century, wouldn’t everyone in the community know when I went shopping? They’d see my face as I walked or rode my horse down the street. And, since supermarkets like ours did not exist back then, I would be required to ask the shopkeeper to bring me whatever items I wished to buy. Thus, every shopkeeper would know precisely what items I bought.

The more I compare our modern notions of privacy with those that prevailed in this country many decades ago, the more I realize that, in many ways, we have far more privacy now than at any time in our history. That might account for our obsession with the concept. I mean, haven’t we become so accustomed to our quasi-anonymous lifestyle (how many of your neighbors do you know?) that we now assume such a lifestyle has always been our sacred right as Americans?

Yes, it bothers me sometimes that huge, multinational corporations probably monitor my shopping destinations, read my emails, and crunch numbers designed to maximize the probability that my next purchase will be from them as opposed to their competitors. Then I ask myself, am I really ready to give up that substantial insurance premium discount in return for yet more anonymity?