Every now and then, due to some egregious blunder or blatant overreach on the part of government agencies or tech companies, concerns about surveillance and technology break out beyond the confines of academic specialists and into the public consciousness: the Snowden leaks about the NSA in 2013, the Facebook emotional manipulation study in 2014, the Cambridge Analytica scandal in the wake of the 2016 election. These moments seem to elicit a vague anxiety that ultimately dissipates as quickly as it materialized. Concerns about the NSA are now rarely heard, and while Facebook has experienced notable turbulence, it is not at all clear that meaningful regulation will follow or that a significant number of users will abandon the platform. Indeed, the chief effect of these fleeting moments of surveillance anxiety may be a gradual inoculation to them. In my experience, most people are not only untroubled by journalistic critiques of exploitative surveillance practices; they may even be prepared to defend them: There are trade-offs, yes, but privacy appears to be a reasonable price to pay for convenience or security.
This attitude is not new. In the late 1960s, researcher Alan Weston divided the population into three groups according to their attitudes toward privacy: fundamentalists, who are generally reluctant to share personal information; the unconcerned, who are untroubled and unreflective about privacy; and pragmatists, who report some concern about privacy but are also willing to weigh the benefits they might receive in exchange for disclosing personal information. He found then that the majority of Americans were privacy pragmatists, and subsequent studies have tended to confirm those findings. When Westin updated his research in 2000, he concluded that privacy pragmatists amounted to 55 percent of the population, while 25 percent were fundamentalists and 20 percent were unconcerned.