I have a piece in today’s NY Times “Room for Debate” feature, on whether the government should regulate Facebook. In writing the piece, I was looking for a pithy way to express the problems with today’s notice-and-consent model for online privacy. After some thought, I settled on “privacy theater”.
Bruce Schneier has popularized the term “security theater,” denoting security measures that look impressive but don’t actually protect us—they create the appearance of security but not the reality. When a security guard asks to see your ID but doesn’t do more than glance at it, that’s security theater. Much of what happens at airport checkpoints is security theater too.
Worse yet. privacy policies are subject to change. When sites change their policies, we get another round of privacy theater, in which sites pretend to notify us of the changes, and we pretend to consider them before continuing our use of the site.
And yet, if we’re going to replace the notice-and-consent model, we need something else to put in its place. At this point, It’s hard to see what that might be. It might help to set up default rules, on the theory that a policy that states how it differs from the default might be shorter and simpler than a stand-alone policy, but that approach will only go so far.
In the end, we may be stuck with privacy theater, just as we’re often stuck with security theater. If we can’t provide the reality of privacy or security, we can settle for theater, which at least makes us feel a bit better about our vulnerability.