How we sold our privacy piecemeal

Apr 2, JDN 2457846

The US Senate just narrowly voted to remove restrictions on the sale of user information by Internet Service Providers. Right now, your ISP can basically sell your information to whomever they like without even telling you. The new rule that the Senate struck down would have required them to at least make you sign a form with some fine print on it, which you probably would sign without reading it. So in practical terms maybe it makes no difference.

…or does it? Maybe that’s really the mistake we’ve been making all along.

In cognitive science we have a concept called the just-noticeable difference (JND); it is basically what it sounds like. If you have two stimuli—two colors, say, or sounds of two different pitches—that differ by an amount smaller than the JND, people will not notice it. But if they differ by more than the JND, people will notice. (In practice it’s a bit more complicated than that, as different people have different JND thresholds and even within a person they can vary from case to case based on attention or other factors. But there’s usually a relatively narrow range of JND values, such that anything below that is noticed by no one and anything above that is noticed by almost everyone.)

The JND seems like an intuitively obvious concept—of course you can’t tell the difference between a color of 432.78 nanometers and 432.79 nanometers!—but it actually has profound implications. In particular it undermines the possibility of having truly transitive preferences. If you prefer some colors to others—which most of us do—but you have a nonzero JND in color wavelengths—as we all do—then I can do the following: Find one color you like (for concreteness, say you like blue of 475 nm), and another color you don’t (say green of 510 nm). Let you choose between the blue you like and another blue, 475.01 nm. Will you prefer one to the other? Of course not, the difference is within your JND. So now compare 475.01 nm and 475.02 nm; which do you prefer? Again, you’re indifferent. And I can go on and on this way a few thousand times, until finally I get to 510 nanometers, the green you didn’t like. I have just found a chain of your preferences that is intransitive; you said A = B = C = D… all the way down the line to X = Y = Z… but then at the end you said A > Z. Your preferences aren’t transitive, and therefore aren’t well-defined rational preferences. And you could do the same to me, so neither are mine.

Part of the reason we’ve so willingly given up our privacy in the last generation or so is our paranoid fear of terrorism, which no doubt triggers deep instincts about tribal warfare. Depressingly, the plurality of Americans think that our government has not gone far enough in its obvious overreaches of the Constitution in the name of defending us from a threat that has killed fewer Americans in my lifetime than die from car accidents each month.

But that doesn’t explain why we—and I do mean we, for I am as guilty as most—have so willingly sold our relationships to Facebook and our schedules to Google. Google isn’t promising to save me from the threat of foreign fanatics; they’re merely offering me a more convenient way to plan my activities. Why, then, am I so cavalier about entrusting them with so much personal data?


Well, I didn’t start by giving them my whole life. I created an email account, which I used on occasion. I tried out their calendar app and used it to remind myself when my classes were. And so on, and so forth, until now Google knows almost as much about me as I know about myself.

At each step, it didn’t feel like I was doing anything of significance; perhaps indeed it was below my JND. Each bit of information I was giving didn’t seem important, and perhaps it wasn’t. But all together, our combined information allows Google to make enormous amounts of money without charging most of its users a cent.

The process goes something like this. Imagine someone offering you a penny in exchange for telling them how many times you made left turns last week. You’d probably take it, right? Who cares how many left turns you made last week? But then they offer another penny in exchange for telling them how many miles you drove on Tuesday. And another penny for telling them the average speed you drive during the afternoon. This process continues hundreds of times, until they’ve finally given you say $5.00—and they know exactly where you live, where you work, and where most of your friends live, because all that information was encoded in the list of driving patterns you gave them, piece by piece.

Consider instead how you’d react if someone had offered, “Tell me where you live and work and I’ll give you $5.00.” You’d be pretty suspicious, wouldn’t you? What are they going to do with that information? And $5.00 really isn’t very much money. Maybe there’s a price at which you’d part with that information to a random suspicious stranger—but it’s probably at least $50 or even more like $500, not $5.00. But by asking it in 500 different questions for a penny each, they can obtain that information from you at a bargain price.

If you work out how much money Facebook and Google make from each user, it’s actually pitiful. Facebook has been increasing their revenue lately, but it’s still less than $20 per user per year. The stranger asks, “Tell me who all your friends are, where you live, where you were born, where you work, and what your political views are, and I’ll give you $20.” Do you take that deal? Apparently, we do. Polls find that most Americans are willing to exchange privacy for valuable services, often quite cheaply.


Of course, there isn’t actually an alternative social network that doesn’t sell data and instead just charges a subscription fee. I don’t think this is a fundamentally unfeasible business model, but it hasn’t succeeded so far, and it will have an uphill battle for two reasons.

The first is the obvious one: It would have to compete with Facebook and Google, who already have the enormous advantage of a built-in user base of hundreds of millions of people.

The second one is what this post is about: The social network based on conventional economics rather than selling people’s privacy can’t take advantage of the JND.

I suppose they could try—charge $0.01 per month at first, then after awhile raise it to $0.02, $0.03 and so on until they’re charging $2.00 per month and actually making a profit—but that would be much harder to pull off, and it would provide the least revenue when it is needed most, at the early phase when the up-front costs of establishing a network are highest. Moreover, people would still feel that; it’s a good feature of our monetary system that you can’t break money into small enough denominations to really consistently hide under the JND. But information can be broken down into very tiny pieces indeed. Much of the revenue earned by these corporate giants is actually based upon indexing the keywords of the text we write; we literally sell off our privacy word by word.


What should we do about this? Honestly, I’m not sure. Facebook and Google do in fact provide valuable services, without which we would be worse off. I would be willing to pay them their $20 per year, if I could ensure that they’d stop selling my secrets to advertisers. But as long as their current business model keeps working, they have little incentive to change. There is in fact a huge industry of data brokering, corporations you’ve probably never heard of that make their revenue entirely from selling your secrets.

In a rare moment of actual journalism, TIME ran an article about a year ago arguing that we need new government policy to protect us from this kind of predation of our privacy. But they had little to offer in the way of concrete proposals.

The ACLU does better: They have specific proposals for regulations that should be made to protect our information from the most harmful prying eyes. But as we can see, the current administration has no particular interest in pursuing such policies—if anything they seem to do the opposite.

In defense of slacktivism

Jan 22, JDN 2457776

It’s one of those awkward portmanteaus that people often make to try to express a concept in fewer syllables, while also implicitly saying that the phenomenon is specific enough to deserve its own word: “Slacktivism”, made of “slacker” and “activism”, not unlike “mansplain” is made of “man” and “explain” or “edutainment” was made of “education” and “entertainment”—or indeed “gerrymander” was made of “Elbridge Gerry” and “salamander”. The term seems to be particularly popular on Huffington Post, which has a whole category on slacktivism. There is a particular subcategory of slacktivism that is ironically against other slacktivism, which has been dubbed “snarktivism”.

It’s almost always used as a pejorative; very few people self-identify as “slacktivists” (though once I get through this post, you may see why I’m considering it myself). “Slacktivism” is activism that “isn’t real” somehow, activism that “doesn’t count”.

Of course, that raises the question: What “counts” as legitimate activism? Is it only protest marches and sit-ins? Then very few people have ever been or will ever be activists. Surely donations should count, at least? Those have a direct, measurable impact. What about calling your Congressman, or letter-writing campaigns? These have been staples of activism for decades.
If the term “slacktivism” means anything at all, it seems to point to activities surrounding raising awareness, where the goal is not to enact a particular policy or support a particular NGO but to simply get as much public attention to a topic as possible. It seems to be particularly targeted at blogging and social media—and that’s important, for reasons I’ll get to shortly. If you gather a group of people in your community and give a speech about LGBT rights, you’re an activist. If you send out the exact same speech on Facebook, you’re a slacktivist.

One of the arguments against “slacktivism” is that it can be used to funnel resources at the wrong things; this blog post makes a good point that the Kony 2012 campaign doesn’t appear to have actually accomplished anything except profits for the filmmakers behind it. (Then again: A blog post against slacktivism? Are you sure you’re not doing right now the thing you think you are against?) But is this problem unique to slacktivism, or is it a more general phenomenon that people simply aren’t all that informed about how to have the most impact? There are an awful lot of inefficient charities out there, and in fact the most important waste of charitable funds involves people giving to their local churches. Fortunately, this is changing, as people become more secularized; churches used to account for over half of US donations, and now they only account for less than a third. (Naturally, Christian organizations are pulling out their hair over this.) The 60 million Americans who voted for Trump made a horrible mistake and will cause enormous global damage; but they weren’t slacktivists, were they?

Studies do suggest that traditionally “slacktivist” activities like Facebook likes aren’t a very strong predictor of future, larger actions, and more private modes of support (like donations and calling your Congressman) tend to be stronger predictors. But so what? In order for slacktivism to be a bad thing, they would have to be a negative predictor. They would have to substitute for more effective activism, and there’s no evidence that this happens.

In fact, there’s even some evidence that slacktivism has a positive effect (normally I wouldn’t cite Fox News, but I think in this case we should expect a bias in the opposite direction, and you can read the full Georgetown study if you want):

A study from Georgetown University in November entitled “Dynamics of Cause Engagement” looked how Americans learned about and interacted with causes and other social issues, and discovered some surprising findings on Slacktivism.

While the traditional forms of activism like donating money or volunteering far outpaces slacktivism, those who engage in social issues online are twice as likely as their traditional counterparts to volunteer and participate in events. In other words, slacktivists often graduate to full-blown activism.

At worst, most slacktivists are doing nothing for positive social change, and that’s what the vast majority of people have been doing for the entirety of human history. We can bemoan this fact, but that won’t change it. Most people are simply too uniformed to know what’s going on in the world, and too broke and too busy to do anything about it.

Indeed, slacktivism may be the one thing they can do—which is why I think it’s worth defending.

From an economist’s perspective, there’s something quite odd about how people’s objections to slacktivism are almost always formulated. The rational, sensible objection would be to their small benefits—this isn’t accomplishing enough, you should do something more effective. But in fact, almost all the objections to slacktivism I have ever read focus on their small costs—you’re not a “real activist” because you don’t make sacrifices like I do.

Yet it is a basic principle of economic rationality that, all other things equal, lower cost is better. Indeed, this is one of the few principles of economic rationality that I really do think is unassailable; perfect information is unrealistic and total selfishness makes no sense at all. But cost minimization is really very hard to argue with—why pay more, when you can pay less and get the same benefit?

From an economist’s perspective, the most important thing about an activity is its cost-effectiveness, measured either by net benefitbenefit minus cost—or rate of returnbenefit divided by cost. But in both cases, a lower cost is always better; and in fact slacktivism has an astonishing rate of return, precisely because its cost is so small.

Suppose that a campaign of 10 million Facebook likes actually does have a 1% chance of changing a policy in a way that would save 10,000 lives, with a life expectancy of 50 years each. Surely this is conservative, right? I’m only giving it a 1% chance of success, on a policy with a relatively small impact (10,000 lives could be a single clause in an EPA regulatory standard), with a large number of slacktivist participants (10 million is more people than the entire population of Switzerland). Yet because clicking “like” and “share” only costs you maybe 10 seconds, we’re talking about an expected cost of (10 million)(10/86,400/365) = 0.32 QALY for an expected benefit of (10,000)(0.01)(50) = 5000 QALY. That is a rate of return of 1,500,000%—that’s 1.5 million percent.

Let’s compare this to the rate of return on donating to a top charity like UNICEF, Oxfam, the Against Malaria Foundation, or the Schistomoniasis Control Initiative, for which donating about $300 would save the life of 1 child, adding about 50 QALY. That $300 most likely cost you about 0.01 QALY (assuming an annual income of $30,000), so we’re looking at a return of 500,000%. Now, keep in mind that this is a huge rate of return, far beyond what you can ordinarily achieve, that donating $300 to UNICEF is probably one of the best things you could possibly be doing with that money—and yet slacktivism may still exceed it in efficiency. Maybe slacktivism doesn’t sound so bad after all?

Of course, the net benefit of your participation is higher in the case of donation; you yourself contribute 50 QALY instead of only contributing 0.0005 QALY. Ultimately net benefit is what matters; rate of return is a way of estimating what the net benefit would be when comparing different ways of spending the same amount of time or money. But from the figures I just calculated, it begins to seem like maybe the very best thing you could do with your time is clicking “like” and “share” on Facebook posts that will raise awareness of policies of global importance. Now, you have to include all that extra time spent poring through other Facebook posts, and consider that you may not be qualified to assess the most important issues, and there’s a lot of uncertainty involved in what sort of impact you yourself will have… but it’s almost certainly not the worst thing you could be doing with your time, and frankly running these numbers has made me feel a lot better about all the hours I have actually spent doing this sort of thing. It’s a small benefit, yes—but it’s an even smaller cost.

Indeed, the fact that so many people treat low cost as bad, when it is almost by definition good, and the fact that they also target their ire so heavily at blogging and social media, says to me that what they are really trying to accomplish here has nothing to do with actually helping people in the most efficient way possible.

Rather, it’s two things.

The obvious one is generational—it’s yet another chorus in the unending refrain that is “kids these days”. Facebook is new, therefore it is suspicious. Adults have been complaining about their descendants since time immemorial; some of the oldest written works we have are of ancient Babylonians complaining that their kids are lazy and selfish. Either human beings have been getting lazier and more selfish for thousands of years, or, you know, kids are always a bit more lazy and selfish than their parents or at least seem so from afar.

The one that’s more interesting for an economist is signaling. By complaining that other people aren’t paying enough cost for something, what you’re really doing is complaining that they aren’t signaling like you are. The costly signal has been made too cheap, so now it’s no good as a signal anymore.

“Anyone can click a button!” you say. Yes, and? Isn’t it wonderful that now anyone with a smartphone (and there are more people with access to smartphones than toilets, because #WeLiveInTheFuture) can contribute, at least in some small way, to improving the world? But if anyone can do it, then you can’t signal your status by doing it. If your goal was to make yourself look better, I can see why this would bother you; all these other people doing things that look just as good as what you do! How will you ever distinguish yourself from the riffraff now?

This is also likely what’s going on as people fret that “a college degree’s not worth anything anymore” because so many people are getting them now; well, as a signal, maybe not. But if it’s just a signal, why are we spending so much money on it? Surely we can find a more efficient way to rank people by their intellect. I thought it was supposed to be an education—in which case the meteoric rise in global college enrollments should be cause for celebration. (In reality of course a college degree can serve both roles, and it remains an open question among labor economists as to which effect is stronger and by how much. But the signaling role is almost pure waste from the perspective of social welfare; we should be trying to maximize the proportion of real value added.)

For this reason, I think I’m actually prepared to call myself a slacktivist. I aim for cost-effective awareness-raising; I want to spread the best ideas to the most people for the lowest cost. Why, would you prefer I waste more effort, to signal my own righteousness?

How (not) to talk about the defense budget

JDN 2457927 EDT 20:20.

This week on Facebook I ran into a couple of memes about the defense budget that I thought were worth addressing. While the core message that the United States spends too much on the military is sound, these particular memes are so massively misleading that I think it would be irresponsible to let them go unanswered.


First of all, this graph is outdated; it appears to be from about five years ago. If you use nominal figures for just direct military spending, the budget has been cut from just under $700 billion (what this figure looks like) in 2010 to only about $600 billion today. If you include verterans’ benefits, again nominally, we haven’t been below $700 billion since 2007; today we are now above $800 billion. I think the most meaningful measure is actually military spending as percent of GDP, on which we’ve cut military spending from its peak of 4.7% of GDP in 2010 to 3.5% of GDP today.

It’s also a terrible way to draw a graph; using images instead of bars may be visually appealing, but it undermines the most important aspect of a bar graph, which is that you can easily visually compare relative magnitudes.

But the most important reason why this graph is misleading is that it uses only the so-called “discretionary budget”, which includes almost all military spending but only a small fraction of spending on healthcare and social services. This creates a wildly inflated sense of how much we spend on the military relatively to other priorities.

In particular, we’re excluding Medicare and Social Security, which are on the “mandatory budget”; each of these alone is comparable to total military spending. Here’s a very nice table of all US government spending broken down by category.

Let’s just look at federal spending for now. Including veterans’ benefits, we currently spend $814 billion per year on defense. On Social Security, we spend $959 billion. On healthcare, we spend $1,018 billion per year, of which $536 billion is Medicare.

We also spend $376 billion on social welfare programs and unemployment, along with $149 billion on education, $229 billion servicing the national debt, and $214 billion on everything else (such as police, transportation, and administration).

I’ve made you a graph that accurately reflects these relative quantities:


As you can see, the military is one of our major budget items, but the largest categories are actually pensions (i.e. Social Security) and healthcare (i.e. Medicare and Medicaid).

Given the right year and properly adjusted bars on the graph, the meme may strictly be accurate about the discretionary budget, but it gives an extremely distorted sense of our overall government spending.

The next meme is even worse:


Again the figures aren’t strictly wrong if you use the right year, but we’re only looking at the federal discretionary budget. Since basically all military spending is federal and discretionary, but most education spending is mandatory and done at the state and local level, this is an even more misleading picture.

Total annual US military spending (including veteran benefits) is about $815 billion.
Total US education spending (at all levels) is about $922 billion.

Here’s an accurate graph of total US government spending at all levels:


That is, we spend more on education than we do on the military, and dramatically more on healthcare.

However, the United States clearly does spend far too much on the military and probably too little on education; the proper comparison to make is to other countries.

Most other First World Countries spend dramatically more on education than they do on the military.

France, for example, spends about $160 billion per year on education, but only about $53 billion per year on the military—and France is actually a relatively militaristic country, with the 6th-highest total military spending in the world.

Germany spends about $172 billion per year on education, but only about about $44 billion on the military.

In absolute figures, the United States overwhelms all other countries in the world—we spend as much as at least the next 10 combined.

Using figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the US spends $610 billion of the world’s total $1,776 billion, meaning that over a third of the world’s military spending is by the United States.

This is a graph of the top 15 largest military budgets in the world.


One of these things is not like the other ones…

It probably makes the most sense to compare military spending as a portion of GDP, which makes the US no longer an outlier worldwide, but still very high by First World standards:


If we do want to compare military spending to other forms of spending, I think we should do that in international perspective as well. Here is a graph of education spending versus military spending as a portion of GDP, in several First World countries (military from SIPRI and the CIA, and education from the UNDP):


Our education spending is about average (though somehow we do it so inefficiently that we don’t provide college for free, unlike Germany, France, Finland, Sweden, or Norway), but our military spending is by far the highest.

How about a meme about that?