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You’ve heard that people pay for services with their privacy, but what if people want to pay money for their privacy? What would that cost?

Without realizing it, that’s the question Pulitzer-winning journalist Julia Angwin set out to answer as she began investigating just what it would take to remain anonymous and retain her privacy without giving up the modern conveniences of smart phones, search engines and credit cards.

The results of her investigation make up her new book, Dragnet Nation: A Question for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance, which she outlined as part of a keynote address at the IAPP Global Privacy Summit.

By then end, she was forced to wonder, “Has privacy become a luxury good?” While she spent more than $2,200 on an encryption service, a new computer she could start fresh with, even a bag in which to put her phone, “I still didn’t have any privacy,” she said.

Julia Angwin

When she went to the data brokers, she had no redress. Of 212 brokers she discovered, only 92 would let her opt out. The rest just told her she had no opt-out option or didn’t return her calls at all. While she could stop using Google and start using DuckDuckGo, the results weren’t as accurate. And when she left Gmail, it was virtually impossible to find a private e-mail service that was encrypted and didn’t have logs.

“I ended up with Riseup,” she said, “and I can’t really recommend it. It has tiny storage, and you have to delete all the time. And you have to sign a manifesto. It says you have to be against oppression—gender oppression, capitalist oppression. I decided I was against oppression, so I signed it. Although, at the time, I worked at The WSJ, which has the tagline of ‘adventures in capitalism.’”

She deleted Facebook and LinkedIn. She set up a fake identity in the name of famous journalist Ida Tarbell, so she could have credit cards and pay for things at a restaurant without being trailed.

“But, I didn’t have hope with my cellphone,” she said. “There’s not much you can do … I put some encryption apps on my phone, but I can’t talk to anyone else. So, I’ve got Ida’s phone. Ida has a phone. At least the tracking is in her name. And then, occasionally, I put it in a bag. It blocks all the signals, but my kids can’t reach me. Not exactly optimal.”

It was deeply unsatisfying, expensive and ineffective.

“I ultimately left thinking, ‘This is unfair,’” she told the collected privacy professionals. “Some of the privacy problems I could solve myself, but some of these things need a collective action.”

Written By

Sam Pfeifle


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