Scott Adams pulls a Brin

Eugen Leitl eugen at
Wed Mar 16 11:04:10 PDT 2011


Mar 15, 2011 General Nonsense | Notify

I heard a report on NPR about an auto insurance company giving drivers the
options of putting GPS tracking devices on their vehicles to lower insurance
rates by as much as 30%. The idea is that, for example, the device could
confirm to the insurance company that the car wasn't being used in high risk
situations, such as commute traffic. Safe driving situations would be
rewarded with lower rates.

This made me wonder how much money could be saved by creating an entire city
with no privacy except in the bedroom and bathroom. I will stipulate in
advance that you do not want to live in such a place because you're an urban
pirate. You want the freedom to do "stuff" that no one ever finds out about.
I get it. This is just an economic thought experiment.

Although you would never live in a city without privacy, I think that if one
could save 30% on basic living expenses, and live in a relatively crime-free
area, plenty of volunteers would come forward.

Let's assume that residents of this city agree to get "chipped" so their
locations are always known. Everyone's online activities are also tracked, as
are all purchases, and so on. We'll have to assume this hypothetical city
exists in the not-so-distant future when technology can handle everything I'm
about to describe.

This city of no privacy wouldn't need much of a police force because no
criminal would agree to live in such a monitored situation. And let's assume
you have to have a chip to enter the city at all. The few crooks that might
make the mistake of opting in would be easy to round up. If anything big went
down, you could contract with neighboring towns to get SWAT support in
emergency situations.

You wouldn't need police to catch speeders. Cars would automatically report
the speed and location of every driver.  That sucks, you say, because you
usually speed, and you like it. But consider that speed limits in this
hypothetical town would be much higher than normal because every car would be
aware of the location of every other car, every child, and every pet.
Accidents could be nearly eliminated.

Healthcare costs might plunge with the elimination of privacy. For example,
your pill container would monitor whether you took your prescription pills on
schedule. I understand that noncompliance of doctor-ordered dosing is a huge
problem, especially with older folks.

Without privacy you would also begin to build a database of which drugs are
actually working and which ones have deadly side effects. Every patient's
history would be meticulously and automatically collected. The same goes for
detailed diet and exercise patterns. Healthcare today involves an alarming
amount of educated guesswork. In time, with a total lack of privacy, we'd
know precisely which kinds of choices have better health outcomes.

Now imagine that your doctor has a full screen of your DNA so together you
can modify your lifestyle or healthcare choices to avoid problems for which
you are prone. This city would need to have universal healthcare to make this
work. No one would be denied coverage because of an existing or potential

Employment would seem problematic in this world of no privacy. You assume
that no employer would hire someone who has risky lifestyle preferences, or
DNA that suggests major health problems. But I'll bet employers would learn
that everyone has issues of one kind or another, so hiring a qualified
candidate who might later become ill will look like a good deal. And on the
plus side, employers would rarely hire someone who had a bad employment
record, as that information would not be as hidden as it is today. Bad
workers would end up voluntarily moving out of the city to find work. Imagine
a world where your coworkers are competent. You might need a lack of privacy
to get to that happy situation.

Public transportation would be cheap in this city of no privacy. Once you
know where everyone is, and where everyone wants to go, you can design a
system that has little wasted capacity. That means lower costs.

Now let's say that your house is aware of your location and even your
patterns of activities. Smart systems in the home can turn off your lights
whenever a room is unoccupied, power down your computer as needed, and
generally manage your power consumption smartly. And if you insisted on being
an energy hog, your neighbors would be aware of it. Studies have shown that
peer pressure has a huge impact on conservation. It's not as bad as it
sounds; if your neighbor is elderly, and using a lot of energy for extra
heating, you would understand. In most cases your neighbor's excessive energy
use would have a perfectly good explanation.

At tax time, you'd be done before you started. All of your financial
activities would be tracked in real time, so your taxes would always be up to

Advertisements would transform from a pervasive nuisance into something more
like useful information. Advertisers would know so much about your lifestyle
and preferences that you would only see ads that made perfect sense for your

This lack of privacy would extend to businesses as well, although the better
description in this case would be transparency. As a consumer, you'd know
where to get the best prices. You'd know how long the wait is at your
favorite restaurant. And you'd know how every consumer felt about his
experience with every business.

When you considered applying for a new job, you'd have access to the latest
employee opinion survey for that business. Bad employee practices would be
driven out and best practices would more easily spread.

Confusopolies wouldn't be tolerated in this city. Confusing pricing plans are
a weasel method of hiding information from consumers. If a company wants to
offer cell phone service, or insurance, or banking, in this city they have to
meet standards for pricing clarity.

On the personal side of things, a complete surrendering of privacy means it's
always easy to locate and hook up with people who have similar interests and
similar schedules. Dating, and every other social activity would become far
easier. And cheating would be nearly impossible.

You worry about the slippery slope of zero privacy. The government could
easily abuse this information. But that problem is somewhat minimized because
the situation is limited to a single city, and the residents can simply leave
if they don't like how things are going.

I know you don't want to live in that city. I'm just curious what sort of
price, in economic terms, and in convenience and in social benefits, we pay
for our privacy. My guess is that it's expensive.

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