CHAPTER 19 The externality reality: is this the end of privacy?

A favourite term of economic rationalists is ‘externality’. In economics, an externality is a cost or unexpected consequence of a new form of activity. The problem with most externalities is that they usually arrive after the fact, once the new behaviour has already set in and been widely distributed. In addition to this, externalities aren’t usually priced into the market or regulated in the short term. They tend to become the focus of heated political debate sometime after the innovation that led to them. Environmental pollution was the core externality of the industrial era. Many claim that the erosion of privacy and the emerging data industrial complex are the pollution of the technology revolution.

Digital footprints

The mobile revolution has enabled some supposedly new forms of human behaviour. The ability to leave a footprint of everywhere we go is one of these. We now have the ability, intended or not, to geo-locate ourselves. We can share whatever we think, do and buy, and wherever we go. While these footprints are left with most of our digital-based activities, the footprints themselves are not like those we leave on the beach. First, digital footprints are hard to see because there are so many of them. But we need to remember they rarely get washed away, and someone else owns the beach. It leaves us with a set of circumstances that seem, on first impression, like a first for humanity: the end of privacy. ...

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