Down With Privacy, Up With The Panopticon And Sousveillance
I view privacy the same way I view intellectual property (or, more accurately, intellectual privilege, as Tom Bell dubs it): if it's worth keeping private, people will generally find a way to keep it that way, and that's great. In most cases, however, information--both personal and commercial--isn't worth keeping private, so it won't be. We are biased towards the status quo and have a hard time imagining alternate scenarios in which what most of us currently consider private matters are no longer so, and what most of us consider viable business models for the production and dissemination of information make about as much sense as copyrighting new words like w00t.
Sexual mores of modesty provide a good framework for thinking about this: a woman living in, say, 19th century Europe or present day Saudi Arabia might be mortified to go out in public with her hair uncovered, naked elbows, shoulders, or knees displayed to the public. But put that same women in a culture in which these public displays are as commonplace and pedestrian as watching grass grow, and the shame is gone. People aren't going to ogle that which they see constantly, everyday, so there just isn't any reason to be embarrassed about it.
To use another contemporary analogy, this is the same logic behind nonconsensual "outing" in the gay community. The desire to stay in the closet presents the gay community with a prisoner's dilemma: it may be perfectly rational for an individual gay person to keep his or her sexual identity private, so as not to risk public censure, loss of career opportunities, and distancing from friends and family. But if every gay person went public with their homosexuality, there would be much less for each individual gay person to fear: society would simply adjust (as it already has to a great extent) and come to accept the normalcy of the phenomenon, by virtue of the fact that each and every member of society has so many friends and knows so many acquaintances who are both normal, respectable, and gay. By hiding in the closet, the gay individual is fueling his or her own greatest fears, as the public then associates homosexuality with only the extreme outsiders, who tend not to be as normal or respectable as the average. The same, of course, is true with responsible drug users (in contrast to irresponsible drug abusers) and libertarian anarchists (long-time readers of this blog may remember my little adventure in trying to out a famous libertarian of his anarchism).
When I think about the kinds of things people wish to keep private, I can usually sort them into one of two categories: (a) activities that they truly should be ashamed of, such as aggression, dishonesty, and hypocrisy, for which a lessening of privacy would be beneficial in creating greater incentives for good behavior, and (b) activities that are shameful merely by virtue of the public goods problem mentioned above, and would cease to be shameful as soon as everyone realized everything about everyone else.
The issue of insurance might seem to be an exception to this dichotomy. A loss of privacy could mean loss of insurable claims, so people value keeping, say, genetic medical information private from insurance company eyes, and yet this sort of privacy matches neither (a) nor (b).
Insurance is predicated on a lack of knowledge. We purchase insurance because neither we nor the seller knows what is in store for us individually. But the insurer is better able to manage risk by pooling together many policy holders, thereby spreading out the risk to just slightly less than the premium paid by each member. Once we introduce something like genetic testing into the mix, however, it makes no sense to claim to want to keep the results private from insurance companies, because this would completely destroy the very purpose behind insurance, through the problem of adverse selection. The presence of asymmetric information, whether actual as in the case of private genetic testing, or virtual as in the case of government fiat forcing insurance companies to treat all policy holders equally regardless of relevant individual characteristics, weakens the rational for insurance, increases the cost of individual policies across the board, reduces the profit margins and thus the incentives for companies to enter and remain in the insurance market, and ultimately destroys insurance companies qua insurance companies and instead turns them into pre-payment programs for certainties, not risks, like paying for car "insurance" that covers all gasoline refills, or medical "insurance" that pays for regularly scheduled checkups.
So loss of privacy of genetic information in this context is a good thing, so long as we accept that knowledge of genetic information at all is a good thing. Perhaps it isn't. Perhaps whatever benefits might accrue from early knowledge of genetic predispositions to certain diseases are outweighed by the loss of being able to insure those claims. But if that's the case, the objection shouldn't be made on privacy grounds, but on the existence of genetic information in the first place.
Despite this uncertainty, I'm pretty confident that the benefits of greater information will outweigh the risks. To paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined private life is not worth living. Two cheers for the Panopticon and its counterpart, sousveillance.