Score one for privacy. A New Hampshire judge ruled yesterday that the New Hampshire $560 million Powerball winner can indeed retain her anonymity.
These days, it’s a rare case of privacy winning, as for most of us the growing transparency of our lives increasingly seems to trump any deliberate personal choice as our habits and preferences are often shared on social media or monitored by marketers both on- and offline. And more often than not, most of us make a tradeoff in favor of divulging personal information.
And it is a trade — whether we consciously think of it that way or not — between disclosing personal details and sometimes a very hazy benefit. There might be some literal, monetary value as is the case with customer loyalty cards generating savings or a matter of more general convenience such as with online shopping or on-demand viewing. The awareness that you’re being tracked at times only becomes apparent when you receive that wacky piece of junk mail way out of your demographic (cemetery plots were recently marketed to me) or a mismatched “based on your past purchases” recommendation rises to the top of a “personalized” shopping list that you would never place there yourself. And some people seem to actively cultivate exposure by leaving settings public on Venmo accounts or in an apparent expectation that there is no privacy anyway and so therefore decide to seek the best rewards for their info. (There are even guides to free apps and how to swing the best deals.)
But perhaps it takes a whopping, $560 million amount and, yes, that anonymous New Hampshirite to raise the question of what privacy is worth protecting. In his ruling, Judge Charles S. Temple of the Hillsborough Superior Court Southern District, acknowledged this thorny issue concerning Jane Doe, as she was identified by the court with: “the threshold issue is whether Ms. Doe has a privacy interest in the nondisclosure of her name and hometown,” according to the ruling.
That risk of exposure was likely high, with Judge Temple citing potential harassment as other winners of large lottery prizes “have been routinely subject to unwanted contact,” according to the ruling. In it, he laid out Ms. Doe’s reference to past news reports such as an Illinois winner who was mailed more than 1,000 letters from strangers “trying to tug at his heartstrings” not to mention the scare of a bomb threat called to his home or even the much milder expectation from people in bars that he would buy a round of drinks. Even the law firm, Shaheen and Gordon, representing Ms. Doe, “has been bombarded with solicitations from various individuals seeking to capitalize on her winnings,” according to the ruling. The store Reeds Ferry Market, where the ticket was purchased and which received a $75,000 prize for selling the winning ticket was, according to the ruling, “inundated with nonsense calls from people asking for money … Some callers have [even] requested that [the owner] buy them a new home.”
Other lottery winners have found themselves in grave physical danger. The ruling cites a shocking case where the “defendant robbed home, murdered one person, shot another person, and assaulted a child in attempt to steal $2,700 lottery ticket.”
Yes, massive lottery payouts like Jane Doe’s may be an extreme example. And true, most of us won’t find ourselves in such a position of wondering whether or not we would choose to protect our privacy in such an instance. (In this situation, the situation was unique because Jane Doe signed the back of the ticket even though New Hampshire permits winners to establish a trust to collect the proceeds on their behalf and protect their anonymity.) But as Alessandro Aquisti and Jens Grossklags outlined in a 2007 paper, (What Can Behavioral Economics Teach Us About Privacy?), most of us may be ill-equipped to adequately value our privacy anyway.