Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin changes his mind on privacy

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Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin has explained on Reddit how his views on privacy issues have evolved in recent years to the point where he is now “considerably more pro-privacy than I was a few years ago.

Buterin writes that he used to believe that “in a well-running society it’s probably optimal that everyone sees everything” but that in general life privacy technology has two main benefits.

First, it allows people to get around “silly regulations” and enables them to “buy weed” or “put up beds so people can sleep over in offices”. Secondly, even though transparency is good, it should be distributed throughout the society. If the government is the only one with “the all-seeing eye”, it gives that government too much power.

Privacy to protect ourselves from our own behaviour

However, Buterin now believes that even if in a “hypothetical perfectly equal and fair society” we need privacy for our own wellbeing. He cites American economist Robin Hanson as particularly influencing his thinking here. Hanson has recently put forward a case that much, if not most, of our behaviour is not done for its own sake, but instead to signal something to other people.

Having seen “just how large a portion of our lives [signalling] still is”, Buterin suggests that some privacy is needed if we are to stop “signalling concerns from encompassing all of our activity.” Having private spaces allows us somewhere where we can “optimize for our own happiness and just our own happiness” rather than always having half an eye on how this behaviour comes across to others.

On a practical level, Buterin argues that our “mass surveillance” society is undesirable as he does not “trust governments and large corporations to have interests that are aligned with us.” Furthermore, even if those interests were aligned, and those large organisations’ motives were benevolent, the surveillance “creates points of centralized data collection that could get hacked.

He signs off by suggesting that the battle might have been already lost in the physical space (due to the number of cameras, busybodies etc), so “we should at least work hard to make the internet a more privacy-preserving place.

Buterin shared his post with ZCash founder Zooko Wilcox, whistleblower Edward Snowden, consultants YuanfenFlow and Robin Hanson himself.

Wilcox replied that Buterin, who seemingly is willing to change his mind on things, should abandon his veganism and “now try carnivore diet.”

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