Washington University in St. Louis
Privacy law is failing to protect individuals from being watched and exposed, despite stronger surveillance and data protection rules. The problem is that our rules look to social norms to set thresholds for privacy violations, but people can get used to being observed. In this article, we argue that by ignoring de minimis privacy encroachments, the law is complicit in normalizing surveillance. Privacy law helps acclimate people to being watched by ignoring smaller, more frequent, and more mundane privacy diminutions. We call these reductions “privacy nicks,” like the proverbial “thousand cuts” that lead to death.
Privacy nicks come from the proliferation of cameras and biometric sensors on doorbells, glasses, and watches, and the drift of surveillance and data analytics into new areas of our lives like travel, exercise, and social gatherings. Under our theory of privacy nicks as the Achilles heel of surveillance law, invasive practices become routine through repeated exposures that acclimate us to being vulnerable and watched in increasingly intimate ways. With acclimation comes resignation, and this shift in attitude biases how citizens and lawmakers view reasonable measures and fair tradeoffs.
Because the law looks to norms and people’s expectations to set thresholds for what counts as a privacy violation, the normalization of these nicks results in a constant re-negotiation of privacy standards to society’s disadvantage. When this happens, the legal and social threshold for rejecting invasive new practices keeps getting redrawn, excusing ever more aggressive intrusions. In effect, the test of what privacy law allows is whatever people will tolerate. There is no rule to stop us from tolerating everything. This article provides a new theory and terminology to understand where privacy law falls short and suggests a way to escape the current surveillance spiral.
Woodrow Hartzog, Evan Selinger & Johanna Gunawan,
Privacy Nicks: How the Law Normalizes Surveillance
Washington University Law Review
Available at: https://scholarship.law.bu.edu/faculty_scholarship/3432
Forthcoming in Washington University Law Review (exp. 2024)