Privacy: The Cupcake


On March 19th, I’m going to make a rare speaking appearance in the DC area.

I say rare because I wasn’t planning to do much speaking to promote the privacy book.

First, because my health has been sketchy for over a year now, so any prolonged travel (more than a few days) is out at the moment.

Honestly, I’m only flying these days for dates.

… Yes, I’ve flown across the country, more than once, to go out on a date. It’s not as crazy as it sounds given my family’s circumstances. I’m trapped in upstate New York taking care of elderly parents and two mentally disabled brothers. So, if I want to date, I have to travel.

Second, there’s not much more I can add to privacy beyond what I’ve said in the book.

When it comes to discussing actual policy changes, or “what it all means,” there are people far smarter than I am who can address that. Safiya Noble, Cathy O’Neil, and Zeynep Tufekci come to mind. All three are brilliant women who deserve your attention, and I say women here because men far too often dominate the conversation around tech.

So, if you want to know my thoughts on privacy, I hope you can spare $10 and pick up either the print or audio edition of the book.

The audio edition is my preferred version. It has more jokes in it. But if you’re the serious type, the print edition is better suited for the classroom and more “professional” settings, jokes about my BDSM/Superheroine-in-peril fetish aside.

Ok. Maybe I do have one more thing to add. And since I’m doing that presentation next week, I should probably work out my thoughts here.

The Cupcake

Let me take you back to the ‘90s for a minute.

It’s the Spring of 1998, and I’m a freshman in high school. Dad worked. Mom drank. My parents were not around, and neither were my siblings. So even though I lived in a house of eight people, I was on my own. That meant I had to feed myself after school, usually with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Doritos, and a cupcake. Thus developing a lifelong affinity for Hostess CupCakes.

And since most people think with their stomach …

The Hostess CupCakes perfectly describes the situation we often find ourselves in when it comes to our privacy.

The reason the privacy debate is so dull is that it requires us to think about the future and these faceless companies and concepts. And as a species, we are terrible at doing that.

That’s a massive problem because the effects of what’s happening now with our data is rarely (if ever) immediately visible. It’s too abstract. Too far off in the distance to worry about.

You may have no problem logging into Facebook to check on your friends, but the information Facebook collects from you as you are doing so may be used against you at a later date.

For example, when you apply for a job and get denied by the hiring manager because they have access to all kinds of data about you. Or worse still, when that data is used to replace the job you wanted to apply for through automation. That’s an extreme example, but a real and increasingly common one.

Facebook is the cupcake. It’s convenient and tasty, sure, but there are consequences to eating one.

And like when you eat those cupcakes, the first thing that doesn’t go through your mind is “DIABETES.”

It’s “YUM!”

Diabetes is not even a thing you think about until the doctor shows up and says, “I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news.” You eat it, you liked it, and you move on with your day. Consequences be damned.

But we know better. Just like with our privacy. We know the current situation that exists is not ok.

So don’t think of Facebook and the other bad actors out there like these faceless beasts you have no control over. Think of them as you would a Hostess CupCake.


So what do you do?

I’m not going to tell you to stop eating cupcakes. I enjoy those little chocolate bastards, and I’m sure most of you do too.

So, the trick isn’t to stop eating them, although that’s probably the best possible thing to do.

If we’re honest, most people won’t do that, and in the case of Facebook, most people can’t do that. It’s wrong to tell people simply, “Don’t use Facebook.” That’s the most unhelpful thing I think you can say, and yet here we are with many tech journalists and tech pundits repeating that line.

The actual trick is to work around the cupcake and fight for better ingredients in it.

You work around the cupcake by building habits that could replace the cupcake with something else, something healthier. This way a daily obsession becomes an occasional snack, and maybe in the future, something you don’t even think about at all. That’s the best case scenario.

The more likely scenario is that you can also contact your state and local representatives about the kind of ingredients that go into your food and ask for only the healthiest possible.

We police our food. We can police Facebook.
Ok. Maybe that’s where this comparison falls apart a little, but you get the idea. Just think about privacy and your data the way you think about your diet and what you eat. That’s an easier and more memorable way to explain what’s going on and why it’s important that we pay attention to the issue.


Photo Courtesy: Evan Amos/Wikimedia Commons