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The Decay of Privacy

February 4, 2019

The pollster was professional. He was conducting a survey of television and radio habits and had a few questions. I had time, so I agreed. After he had finished, he said he needed some personal information and asked how old I was.

I said I wasn't going to answer. He seemed perplexed, then offered to give a set of age ranges for me to select one. Again, I refused. After a few failed attempts to get me to cooperate, he hung up.

The next day, someone else from the same company called and said they wanted to complete the survey. He said, "May I ask why you don't want to give your age?"

I said, "No."

My answer stopped him. I'm sure he had a set of arguments ready for whatever objection I named. He was unprepared for my response.

He said, "If you're worried about the release of personal information, we keep it confidential."

I said, "I don't care. I don't give personal information to strangers. Don't ask me my age, my income, my marital status, my health status, my ethnic origin, my sexual orientation, or anything else, because I won't answer."

"But you don't understand. We need this information for our survey."

"I do understand. You use demographic categories for your statistical analysis. I just don't care."

That ended the conversation. But what alarms me is the attitude of survey takers that they are somehow entitled to personal information. I have started to fill in online surveys until I get to the question on income levels. That's when I click "close."

I have the same problem with political surveys. To the question, "How do you intend to vote in the upcoming election?" I answer. "Are you familiar with the concept of the secret ballot." On one occasion, the survey taker said, "Okay, we'll put you down as undecided." I said, "No, you won't. I'm not undecided. I know exactly how I'll vote. I'm just not going to tell you."

Now some people have questioned why I'm so adamant about not giving out personal information. "What's the problem?" they ask. Or worse, "What do you have to hide?"

My "problem" is not that I'm afraid information will leak out, although that is a possibility. It is that I wish to preserve my privacy. Other than companies with legitimate claims on information—for example, my bank needs my social insurance number so it can issue a T5 interest income statement—nobody else has a legitimate use for it.

But what's the harm? Well anyone who has been victimized by identity theft can answer that question. But it isn't even a question of potential harm. In refusing to answer, I'm relying on an old and underused principle, "It's none of your business." If everyone adopted that attitude, the lives of pollsters would be more complicated, but as I told the man who called me, I don't care.