Can We Save Privacy by Treating Info Like Private Property?

A picture illustration shows a Facebook logo reflected in a person's eye, in Zenica

Treating all personal information as private property is far from a clear and simple solution.

Well not so fast. Any personal information one puts into Facebook—is not treated as personally owned—unless one takes special steps to so protect it. And the steps that one must take, the settings, are complex and bewildering. Above all, privacy at Facebook and other tech firms is an opt-in rather than an opt-out system, the latter being required if one owns one’s data.

Some kind of regulation is clearly called for rather than leaving the matter to each individual to negotiate with Facebook et al. My suggestion is that information considered sensitive—medical, financial—should be protected by the law, as it currently often is, without assuming private ownership. Hence, secondary usage would require prior consent. However, much less sensitive information—which foods I prefer, or hotels, or cars—would be treated as it currently is, under the third-party doctrine. People who disagree and seek to protect all personal information—but still use Facebook and Google and other such services, should be able to opt-out of the data collection by the corporations but pay for their services.

Amitai Etzioni is a university professor at The George Washington University and author of Privacy in a Cyber Age and The Limits of Privacy.

Image: Reuters