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There are millions of things that can be done to protect privacy. Some are better than others. For better privacy, it helps to understand the big picture. Like the laws of physics, there are laws that apply to privacy. Every action taken in conformity with these laws will provide better privacy and help you understand which actions are best for you. This simple formula will help you conceptualize how privacy works, what affects it, and how to better calculate and manage your risks.
The level of privacy you have is equal to the cost for others to acquire your personal information divided by the value of your information to others. The more information that is easily available about you, or the more valuable it is the less privacy you have.
Cost Of Obtaining Information
There are several components to this side of the equation. The cost to acquire information is everything that it might take to discover any piece of information about you. This might be the time it takes to look something up or figure something out. It might be the cost in terms of money to employ tools or technologies or to access certain databases. It might be the expertise needed to discover patterns in mined data or to use advanced surveillance techniques. It might even be the cost in terms of legal risk to someone illegally trying to get your information like hacking into a secured computer network or pretexting. As you increase any of these sub-components of this variable, you increase your privacy.
Value Of Your Information
For most people there must be some incentive to get your information. If there is no monetary, political, or other incentive, gathering protected information becomes a very expensive hobby. Wikileaks does not publish the secret notes that 7th-grade girls pass to each other in class. They publish the secret notes that government officials pass which conflict with their public statements because there is more political value to do so.
Some information can guide profitable decisions and actions. Your shopping habits are very valuable to marketers and businesses. Knowing that, they can reduce their costs of providing you with products that you want, when you want them, where you want them and at the price you want them. Reduced cost and probably increased revenue = increased profit.
Information about your personal wealth can guide profitable identity fraud or extortion. Higher wealth means higher potential credit limits means more return for the same work done to steal a wealthy person’s identity than an average person. The wealthier the victim, the more money extortionists can bleed out of them at a profit. Higher wealth means that litigants will be able to demand more money in legitimate lawsuits and even demand more to avoid the hassle of a baseless lawsuit.
The higher your public profile, the higher the value of your information, whether you have money or not. If you’re an A-list celebrity, the spokesperson for a contumacious website, or if your circumstances make you a very public person, your information increases in value.
You can manipulate the value of your information to a certain extent by protecting the information that would lead someone to believe that you are a high-value target.
Level Of Privacy
Your level of privacy is the level of risk that you face of injury, either psychological, physical or economic, from your information being known to someone else. You may even have different levels of privacy for different types of information. Although your favorite color might be posted publicly on your blog, Facebook profile and tattooed on your arm, you probably wouldn’t do that with your pin numbers. In either case, you are facing a certain amount of risk that your information will be used against you.
Interaction Of These Variables
As you raise the cost to acquire your information (the numerator on the left side of the equation) you increase your level of privacy (the right side of the equation). That is true no matter what your value as a target.
You can raise the cost of obtaining your information by increasing the amount of time someone needs to find it, the amount of money they need to find it, the amount of expertise they need to find it or by increasing the legal risk of breaking the law to get your information, or any combination of these.
If you lower the cost in these categories, your level of privacy will go down.
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As you increase the value of your information as a target, you reduce the level of privacy. This would happen if you increase in wealth, raise your public profile, or if more of your personal information reflects its potential value. As the value of your information goes down, your privacy will increase.
Optimum Level Of Privacy
Everyone has different tastes. Everyone manages risk differently. Privacy allows you to manage your risks by giving you control over your personal information. Some people benefit from more disclosure, like most Hollywood starlets. Disclosure of personal information is risky for others, like an informant on potential war crimes. Everyone has their own optimum level of privacy which they feel most comfortable with.
Different Strokes For Different Folks
Everyone wants to be able to manage their own risks. If they are forced to take more or less risks than they are inherently prepared to take, they are uncomfortable. I see this all the time when it comes to the risk of serious bodily injury. Some people ride a motorcycle with no helmet, wearing t-shirts and shorts. Others wear a helmet, chaps and a leather jacket. Others stay away from motorcycles altogether. None of them are inherently wrong, but nobody wants to be forced to take more or less risk than they are comfortable with.
Unless something drastic happens, a non-helmet wearing biker is not likely to give up riding as the next logical step to taking less risk. She will probably start wearing a helmet, and maybe long pants and boots. The ultra-cautious non-rider has already reduced most of her risk, but maybe she wants to reduce it even more by driving an SUV instead of a 1979 Datsun station wagon, or wearing a helmet while she drives.
Default Level of Privacy Low
The recent trend has been to reduce privacy by default. Data is regularly collected, archived, shared, sold and even stolen, reducing the cost to obtain it. And people have been more than willing to voluntarily give away a lot of their information. Plus, the ability to aggregate and analyze large amounts of information has made the value of everyone’s information go up. This has vastly reduced the level of privacy of most people.
This was mostly the result of people not knowing how much of their information was being collected, what was done with it, and a poor analysis of the likelihood of harm. In many ways, it is like everyone has been forced or tricked into riding around without helmets.
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The purpose of How To Vanish is to give you control over your personal information so that you can manage the risks yourself. Every tip and technique is designed to show you different ways to increase the time, money, expertise, or legal risk needed in order to acquire your information. There are also a lot of things that show you how to reduce your perceived value as a target.
Some people will choose to do the small things to reduce their risk a little bit, like putting on ahelmet and other protective gear to ride. Others will do a bit more, like avoid riding altogether. And some will go as far as they can, like getting an SUV and wearing a helmet when you drive it.
No Silver Bullet Solution
Once you let an idea escape your head, either by writing it down or sharing it with someone, you are risking disclosure. Maybe someone will find the file where you put it, maybe the person you told will share it. No matter what you do to protect that information, there is a risk that someone will be willing to pay the price in time, money, expertise, or legal risk to acquire it. The captain of the Titanic tried to hide that boat on the bottom of the Atlantic, but James Cameron comes along and he is willing to pay the price to go find that information. The best you can do is to protect your privacy in a way that makes you comfortable.
Level Of Privacy = Optimum Level Of Privacy?
For many people, their current level of privacy is not equal to their optimum level of privacy. I would bet that 99% of those people are currently below their optimum level. Where do you think you are?
You Can Increase Your Privacy
Encrypting some of your files with TrueCrypt increases the cost in time, money and expertise needed to discover the contents of those files. Buying things with cash or using electronic gold accounts increases the cost in time, money, and expertise to discover and track your financial transactions. Using a VPN like Witopia, Cryptohippie or Identity Cloaker increases the cost in time, money, expertise and legal processes to determine what you have been doing online. Using multiple jurisdictions for any communication, transaction, or activity increases the cost in time and money, often by increasing the number of legal proceedings, to monitor and discover those activities. Some of these tactics may not be sufficient for your desired level of privacy, others will be too much. But all of them increase the privacy of someone and everyone can increase their privacy in some important ways. How To Vanish the book shows the most important steps to take at any level to get the most privacy for the least cost.
Reprinted with permission from How to Vanish.
December 22, 2010
Bill Rounds, J.D. is a California attorney. He holds a degree in Accounting from the University of Utah and a law degree from California Western School of Law. He practices civil litigation, domestic and foreign business entity formation and transactions, criminal defense and privacy law. He is a strong advocate of personal and financial freedom and civil liberties. This is merely one article of 73 by Bill Rounds J.D.