Privacy Paranoia: Is Your Smartphone Spying On You?

By Omri Ben-Shahar

Posted on August 1, 2016


“Smart” devices are spying on us. GoogleMaps tracks our location, smart home lights figure out our vacation, PillDrill knows our medication, and Fitbit records our dedication. Siri or Alexa, needless to say, report every breath we take.


The technological rise of data-driven devices is universally embraced by consumers. Machines that used to provide simple static functionality now perform data-intensive advisory roles. These “smart” machines transmit through the “internet of things” information on how they are being used, and are fed back with alerts prompting consumers to improve usage, save money, and—truth be told—buy more products. There are smart cars, coffeemakers, refrigerators, alarms, baby monitors, watches, wallets, t-shirts, racquets, Barbie dolls and of course phones.


For some observers, however, these machines are threatening social order. In the emerging fraternity of “privacy alarmists,” “smart” is code name for surveillance. Smart devices are spies who infiltrated our intimate spaces, watching us, eavesdropping our conversations, and reporting back to their corporate headquarters. This information is then stored forever and used to prescribe the way we live. It is also used to enrich the creators of these gadgets. Privacy alarmists view the dissemination of smart devices and the resulting collection of private information as a plot to deny citizens their autonomy and control.


I used to think that privacy alarmism is the domain of fringe conspiracy theorists. But a recent lead essay in the New York Times Magazine shows that privacy alarmists have trumpeted into the mainstream. In a privacy alarmists’ manifesto titled “All Knowing,” the author admonishes “smart” as the new platform for social injustice and citizen exploitation by corporations—yet another example of “capitalism’s bulldozing” of consumers.


“What is presented as an upgrade is actually a stealthy euphemism for surveillance,” used to “provide a company a permanent foothold in a person’s home from which he can be monitored.” The stakes could not be greater, he writes: “’smart’ produces a world where we no longer exert control over objects we’ve bought from corporations, but corporations exert control over us.”


Yes, smart devices transmit information to computers that emit pre-programmed feedback in response. But no, there is no “they” there, no eyes watching us, no surveillance or monitoring–there is no Manchuria. Individuals are not targeted, wiretapped, spied on, or exposed. Instead, databases about populations are assembled, statistical patterns are detected, and greatly beneficial personalized services are offered by automata.


Privacy alarmism’s mistrust of smart technology and of Big Data is a social paranoid disorder. In psychiatry, the clinically paranoids are diagnosed as having “pervasive and persistent mistrust of others” and “tend to do poorly with group activities and collaborative projects.” They “suspect, without sufficient basis, that others are exploiting, harming, or deceiving” them and “read hidden demeaning or threatening meanings into benign events.” (I am quoting DSM-5.) Likewise, in privacy alarmists’ oratory there is plenty of suspicions, perceived threats, and global mistrust of “mother ships”—all with hardly any account of real harms. They imagine that smart devices are “increasingly self aware” and they worry that “these innocent looking devices” are undercover spies “performing other nefarious actions.”


There is something exceedingly narcissistic and immodest in the privacy alarmist’s fear from smart devices. The alarmist thinks that he is personally of interest to some conspiring party, that he is individually important enough to be monitored and targeted, and that his personal information is being “confessed” out of him. The reality could not be more contrary. Big data profiles us, it stereotypes us, but it is hardly interested in anything that is part of our personhood, nor in any single one of us specifically. The thought that a smart device is self-aware in prying into one’s personal space is akin to worrying that the electronic “eye” that sensor-flushes a public toilet is a Peeping Tom.


Like clinical paranoids who cannot see beyond their fears, privacy alarmists are so preoccupied with their suspicions that they overlook the excellent things that smart devices have brought and the widespread gratification they have spread. Smart lighting systems save energy, Fitbits improve health, and smart GPS get us faster and cheaper to our destinations. Fed by rich experience data from smart devices, prediction technology is an exciting technological frontier, soon to bring us the autonomous car. The list of improvements that smart technology produces is so long and overwhelming, that only an obsessive preoccupation with phantom risks could obscure.


"U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015″, Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (April 1, 2015)


There is a great irony in privacy alarmists’ proclaimed concern with “corporate control over us” and with their call for arms to regain control. In the world that I know, smart devices democratized control by giving every one of us greater opportunities to define and accomplish personal goals in affordable and effective manners. My smartphone did not relinquish my control nor diminish my capabilities—it multiplied them. But privacy alarmists are not impressed with these new freedoms.


Again, like the clinically paranoid who “need to have a high degree of control over those around them,” privacy alarmists want social institutions (shaped by their alarmist values) to regulate smart devices, to limit their domain, to reduce their connectivity—in short, to retake control from users and reallocate it to regulatory agencies.


Privacy alarmism is one act in a bigger spectacle. In alarmists’ minds, something could go terribly wrong, and although it never has nor is it likely to happen, we should change the world and imposed new political and bureaucratic order to prepare for it. Privacy concerns in general are fertile breeders of this pattern, and have already inflicted on us useless and expensive laws like HIPPA and FERPA. Now, privacy alarmism has set its sights on the biggest prize: the shrinking of Big Data.



The preceding is republished on TAP with permission by its author, Omri Ben-Shahar, law professor and Kearney Director of the Coase-Sandor Institute for Law and Economics at the University of Chicago Law School. “Privacy Paranoia: Is Your Smartphone Spying On You?” was originally published July 5, 2016 in Forbes.