Restoring your privacy costs money, which makes it a marker of class

Column A colleague was recently required to spend 10 days in a public-health-mandated quarantine after authorities used credit card receipts to determine he’d visited a location that had also hosted a known coronavirus case.

Had he paid in cash they would never have found him at all because he’d also been slack and not signed into the establishment where he was potentially exposed using the requisite QR code.

Fortunately, they found him. Even more fortunately, he hadn’t been infected. As he waited out his quarantine, he meditated on how he’d been poked by the pointy end of the continuing argy-bargy between public health and personal privacy – realising that his data trail gave anyone who bothered to look a complete snapshot of his private life.

Is there anywhere left to hide, he wondered?

In the years since Eric Schmidt declared “Privacy is dead!”, we’ve endured a continuous digital erosion of our private space. Smartphones tracking our location, apps profiling our interactions, smart speakers feeding our conversations into recommendation algorithms, CCTV cameras running facial recognition – and much, much more. Sometimes it can feel as though the battle for even a little bit of privacy has already been lost.

In a Canute-like effort to roll back this tide, I’ve begun to take more and more of myself out of public view. Or rather, to be far more selective about what goes into public view, and what stays carefully hidden.

My messaging has moved to Signal. My browser defaults to Firefox, and my search engine to DuckDuckGo. I have PiHole installed on my home network, and Disconnect running as a browser plugin. Websites often squeal when loaded because they can’t track the life out of my every mouse click. That means I can’t always follow links – because they dip into one of the tracking services as they refer me to a web page – but it also means my online activities are far less visible than they were a year ago.

It’s not actual privacy, but at least it’s frosted glass.

This is not something that I could have done without a fair bit of technical expertise. Throughout all of this, I’ve learned that clawing back private space takes real work – and costs real money.

That’s Apple’s argument in favour of its walled garden ecosystem of apps and services. “We’ll keep your data private,” Apple insists. Unless, well, it runs through China. So you have privacy until commercial imperatives deem that unhelpful? That’s not actual privacy – that’s privacy theatre. Yet people still seem willing to pay for the appearance of privacy.

I’ve decided it’s worthwhile shelling out real money for a ProtonMail account that secures my communications with proper encryption. Although too late to undo the decade and a half that I’ve spent glued to Gmail, I can at least stop feeding the beast. After that, I will need reasonable alternatives to Google Calendar and Google Docs. (All in with Microsoft? That’s a scary thought.)

As I find substitutes and subscribe to these services – businesses making their money from fees rather than by monetising my privacy – those costs will add up. How much should I be prepared to pay for my privacy? What percentage of my income can I devote to maintaining some sort of “digital shielding” from the prying eyes of surveillance capitalism?

Because privacy costs money, privacy has become a defining marker of class. Below a certain threshold of income, you’re prey to the devices and ecosystems that offer themselves up freely – at the cost of any privacy. (Hello Android! Howdy Facebook!) The poor used to be invisible – now they’re among the most easily seen segment of society.

For the very rich – Gates and Musk and Bezos and their ilk – all the money in the world can’t buy privacy. Instead, they’ll use security to keep themselves safe, and – as Bezos did when confronted with blackmail – turn the tables on those prying eyes. Money can’t buy everything, but it can fund revenge.

Between these two extremes, the middle classes will be offered a growing array of “solutions” that promise privacy for a price – and sometimes deliver. Much as modesty was for the Victorians, privacy is becoming a middle-class value. For the poor, it will be seen as aspirational. The degree to which you are private is becoming a metric of success. Are we willing to pay the price? ®