I was in a graduate program with a bunch of engineers studying energy and environmental sciences, transportation systems, and civil engineering. When I first started the program, I didn’t fully understand that there were any significant parallels between my work and theirs. Over time, as with most things, I came to appreciate that unique assembly of multidisciplinary thinkers.
The other night I was thinking about regulation of air travel. Seems like a risky business, air travel — probability of a crash may be low, but if you crash it seems likely you won’t make it out unscathed. People die from plane crashes, although far less frequently than we think. We don’t limit air travel to prevent it though, we require safety measures be put in place and do our best to mitigate a risk that seems far greater to those of us perceiving it as infrequent air travelers than it actually is.
Auto travel, turns out, is more risky. Or so they say. Makes sense, people on average travel in cars more often than planes, so probability of accidents is more likely for the average person. We also regulate the safety of cars, though far less stringently than planes (how would you like a backscatter screening before getting in your car?). And individually we perceive ourselves to be safer driving our cars than riding in airplanes, a perception that I believe has a lot to do with control. If you’re not flying the plane, you have to trust the guy who is. If you’re driving, however, you’re more likely to do what feels safe to you, sometimes overlooking the fact that a lot of driving safety is not in your control but in the hands of other drivers.
In environmental regulation there has been a lot of talk about the precautionary principle: if there is risk of an action harming public welfare, the assumption is that there is a risk until proven otherwise. If dumping chemicals is suspected of causing cancer, well, don’t dump them until you’ve proven it doesn’t cause cancer. Seems to make sense, if irreversible physical harm might result we ought to figure out whether it will (though, one has to wonder how we figure that out…)
So I was thinking the other night, with privacy, where are the parallels? Well, I’ll observe just a few at a very superficial level for now. Airplane crashes make the news in part because they are so rare, but after hearing about plane crashes on the news it seems as though we as individuals fear flying more. Look at the security measures taken up after 9/11, some would argue in disproportion to the threat posed. We want to feel safe, because we aren’t in control. Similarly individual privacy gaffes with life-destroying outcomes make the news — is that because they are relatively rare? The teacher who loses a job because of an incriminating photo, do we hear about that because it is representative of many instances of similar behavior, or because it was one rare event worth reporting on? Do the news reports, whatever their root cause, lead people to fear invasions of privacy more after hearing about them?
And how does driving fit in here — it’s often been observed that users express concern about privacy in the abstract but do not behave in accordance to those expressions, is that because when they feel in control they misperceive risk? If so, should we treat privacy like we treat cars: establish basic rules of the road for auto makers and drivers alike, approach curves with caution, learn to drive defensively to mitigate the risk of another driver’s recklessness?
Where should the precautionary principle play a role, if at all?
Questions not answers, as usual. I’d love to see policy intellectuals delve into these types of questions with their research.