Tag Archives: Privacy

Why Not Hi-Tech Forms?

A half century ago, when people tried to imagine a future full of computers, I’m sure one of the most obvious predictions they made is that we today wouldn’t have to work so hard to fill out forms. Filling out forms seemed then to be a very mechanical task, based on explicit mechanical rules. So once computers had enough space to store the relevant data, and enough computing power to execute those rules, we should not longer need to fill out most tedious parts of forms.

Oh sure, you might need to write an essay for a school application, or make a design for the shed when you ask your homeowner’s association permission to build a shed. But all that other usual tedious detail, no.

Now this has in fact happened for businesses, at least for standard forms and for big business. In fact, this happened many decades ago. Most of them wrote or bought programs to fill out standard forms that they use to talk to customers, to suppliers, and to government. But for ordinary people, this mostly just hasn’t happened. Oh sure, maybe your web browser now fills in an address or a credit card number on a web form. (Though it mostly gets that wrong when I try it.) But not all the other detail. Why not?

Many poor people have to fill out a lot of forms to apply for many kinds of assistance. Roughly once a year I’m told, at least. They see many of these forms as so hard to fill our that many of them just don’t bother unless they get help from someone like a social worker. So a lot of programs to help the poor don’t actually help many of those who are eligible, because they don’t fill out the forms.

So why doesn’t some tech company offer a form app, where you give all your personal info to the form and it fills out most parts of most forms for you? You just have to do the unusual parts. And they could have a separate app to give to orgs that create forms, so they can help make it easier for their forms to get filled out. Yes, much of the effort to make this work is more in standardization than in abstract computer algorithms. But still, why doesn’t some big firm do it?

I suggested all this to a social worker I know, who was aghast; she didn’t want this tech firm knowing all these details, like her social security number. But if you fill out all these forms by hand today, you are telling it all to one new org per year. Adding one firm to the list to make it all much easier doesn’t seem like such a high cost to me.

But maybe this is all about the optics; tech firms fear looking like big brother if they know all this stuff about you. Or many legal liability would fall on these tech firms if the form had any mistakes. Or maybe privacy laws prevent them from even asking for the key info. And so we all suffer with forms, and poor folks don’t get the assistance offer to them. And we all lose, though those of us who are better at filling out forms lose less.

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Signaling Gains From Transparency

I said back in February:

For millennia, we humans have shown off our intelligence via complicated arguments and large vocabularies, health via sport achievement, heavy drink, and long hours, and wealth via expensive clothes, houses, trips, etc. Today we appear to have the more efficient signaling substitutes, such as IQ tests, medical health tests, and bank statements. Yet we continue to show off in the old ways, and rarely substitute such new ways. Why?

One explanation is inertia. Signaling equilibria require complex coordination, and those who try to change it via deviations can seem non-conformist and socially clueless. Another explanation is hypocrisy. As we discuss in our new book, The Elephant in the Brain, ancient and continuing norms against bragging push us to find plausible deniability for our brags. We can pretend that big vocabularies help us convey info, that sports are just fun, and that expensive clothes, etc. are prettier or more comfortable. It is much harder to find excuses to waive around your IQ test or bank statement for others to see.

It recently occurred to me that a sufficient lack of privacy would be an obvious fix for this problem. Imagine that it were easy to use face recognition to find someone’s official records, and from there to find out their net worth, IQ scores, and health test scores. In that case, observers could more cheaply acquire the same info that we are now try to show off in deniable ways.

Yes, we say to want to keep such info private, but the big efforts most of us go through to show off our smarts, health, and wealth suggests that we doth protest too much there. And as usual, it is less that we don’t know what policies would make us better off, and more than we don’t much care about that when we choose our political efforts.

Added 7a: Of course there may also be big disadvantages to losing privacy, and our evolved preferences may be tied more to particular surface behaviors and cues than to their general underlying signaling functions.

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Security Has Costs

Technical systems are often insecure, in that they allow unauthorized access and control. While strong security is usually feasible if designed in carefully from the start, such systems are usually made fast on the cheap. So they usually ignore security at first, and then later address it as an afterthought, which as a result becomes a crude ongoing struggle to patch holes as fast as holes are made or discovered.

The more complex a system is, the more different other systems it is adapted to, the more different organizations that share a system, and the more that such systems are pushed to the edge of technical or financial feasibility, the more likely that related security is full of holes.

A dramatic example of this is cell phone security. Most anyone in the world can use your cell phone to find out where your phone is, and hence where you are. And there’s not much anyone is going to do about this anytime soon. From today’s Post: Continue reading "Security Has Costs" »

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Fair Date Reporting Act

A week ago I heard an NPR radio interview with an FTC representative on web and phone privacy. She said the FTC protects your privacy by making sure firms who collect info on our activities can only use it to sell us stuff, but not to decide on hiring, renting, lending, or insuring. I thought: why is this where we draw our line of “privacy”?

Looking up a recent FTC report (quotes below), I see it goes back to the 1972 Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which required firms that rate you or collect info on you for hiring, renting, lending, or insuring to show you everything your rating is based on, and let you challenge any part of it. And given how completely infeasible it would be to show you all internet info collected about you, or let you challenge any of it, this law basically says that hiring, renting, lending, and insuring decisions must not benefit from the vast increase in info that web/phone tech now creates.

Adverse selection, where the people you least want are mostly like to apply, can plague hiring, renting, lending, and insuring. This is a big problem, and many regulations are said to be designed to deal with it. Yet the FCRA clearly makes this hidden info problem worse, by greatly limiting the info on which such decisions can be based.

To see how far this can go wrong, imagine a Fair Date Reporting Act, requiring all dating decisions to be made on the basis of documented information that potential dates can inspect and challenge. You couldn’t reject someone for a date unless you could clearly document that they are unsuitable. You’d end up relying heavily on some very crude indicators, like weight, education, income, and hair color, and enjoy your dates a lot less. And then they’d probably pass laws prohibiting some indicators as unfair, such as weight.

So why are we more willing to mess up decisions about hiring, renting, lending, or insuring, relative to dating? Because we see those deciders as dominating, because they choose to accept or reject us, and we see big firms as evil. Why don’t we similarly restrict the info firms can use to try to sell us stuff? Because we see ourselves as doing more of the choosing there, making us the dominant party.

Added 11p: Imagine that you were required by law to score all job offers on objective verifiable criteria, such as salary and location, and had to take the job that scored highest. How close would that be to slavery?

Those promised FTC report quotes: Continue reading "Fair Date Reporting Act" »

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