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Is caring about data privacy the new conspicuous consumption?

Yes. But in order to get anyone to care at all, product designers have to start somewhere.

Is caring about data privacy the new conspicuous consumption?
[Photo: Winston Privacy]

How much is digital privacy worth to you? I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that if you had to put a price tag on your privacy—as in, how many actual dollars you’d be willing to part with in order to make sure that Big Tech can’t collect any data on you—that price tag would be pretty close to zero. Even the very concerned wonks at The Atlantic admit it: “Privacy” is abstract, confusing, and hard to sell to regular people who may have heard that “surveillance capitalism” is totes not cool, but still use Gmail and smartphones anyway.

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Which is why the makers of Winston aren’t bothering to try. Instead, they’re embracing the fact that, at least for now, simply caring about “the privacy problem” denotes privilege—and the best way to sell a solution is as a luxury good. Winston’s CEO, Richard Stokes, uses the word “premium product,” but what else would you call an “online privacy device” that costs $250 retail (plus $99 per year in ongoing software subscription fees)?

[Photo: Winston Privacy]

“I definitely think status plays a part,” Stokes says.

Tech-wise, Winston uses peer-to-peer networking to anonymize your online activity and throw a wireless privacy cloak over any connected device within its reach. But design-wise, Winston’s job is to look expensive and important—and conspicuously cast that halo around its owner. “I thought people would just put it in the closet, but in our field trials, 76% of our users said they put Winston out in the open,” says Stokes. “It’s like a badge of honor.”

[Photo: Winston Privacy]
You’ll have to forgive Stokes’s false modesty: Winston was intentionally designed to attract admiration. The company’s Kickstarter campaign plays up a tech-virtue-signaling vibe, and Stokes worked with Chicago-based consultancy MNML to give Winston’s industrial design an Apple-esque aura, complete with an outer case made of brushed aluminum (and all held together “with only one screw,” Stokes says). The thing has a kickstand, for god’s sake: It’s obviously a status object, not an appliance.

[Photo: Winston Privacy]

Winston isn’t the first company to lean into this approach toward selling digital privacy. Home-server startup Helm clads its head-scratcher of a value proposition—hide your email and calendar data from Google by . . . hosting it all yourself!—in a distractingly gorgeous outer case and double-take-inducing $500 price tag. It’s the same strategy that Tesla started with: Instead of trying to get the whole world to care about renewable energy, just get rich techies to buy an awesome-looking electric car.

[Photo: Winston Privacy]
Stokes acknowledges that privacy geeks of a certain means are Winston’s niche. “Being an early-stage startup, we’re targeting people who are already paying for privacy,” he says. The catch is that right now, they’re mostly paying for it in terms of time and technical hassle: “Use a VPN, use an encrypted partition, do Ghostery, do this, do that.” Winston is hoping that a chunk of these already-in-the-know users will pay to make all that go away. “We’re not targeting the 2.5% of bleeding-edge engineers who like going down the privacy rabbit hole,” says Stokes. “We’re after the early adopters who ask engineers for advice on how to protect themselves, but then zone out” on the long-winded explanations. “People who are like, ‘You know, like eight bucks a month, that’s a pretty good trade-off.'”

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To his credit, Stokes knows that Winston’s Tesla-esque design strategy can only take them so far. “Our ultimate goal is to get at least 10% penetration in the U.S. market, and you’re not going to do that being a niche, ultra-premium privacy product,” he says. “But as a startup, we have to iterate really quickly. And so we say, ‘Look, the more early adopters we can get who are really invested in this, the more feedback we’re gonna get, and the faster we can make this thing awesome.” In the future, data privacy—like climate change—may be something that regular people are willing to vote on with their dollars. But to survive until then, companies like Winston have to start somewhere. Designing for conspicuous consumption may make us roll our eyes, but it may also get the ball rolling where we want it to go.

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About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets

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