The right to privacy has been one of the defining issues of the modern world, especially since the advent of the internet, which has facilitated the vast and rapid exchange of information — often beyond our own apparent individual control. The Babbage technology column in The Economist highlights one of the complex dynamics of this issue: the trade off between the convenience that the web brings — many in the form of free services from social media to search — and the need to give up a certain measure of privacy as payment of a sort.
It has been said many times, but the fact remains that anything users share over the internet will inevitably be bought and sold and, sooner or later, used against them in some way. That is the price people tacitly accept for the convenience of using popular web services free of charge.
The corollary, of course, is that if individuals are not paying for some online product, they are the product. And collecting information about the product (users) enhances its value for the service’s actual customers (advertisers, corporate clients and government agencies) who pay the bills. That is how the business model works. Those who do not like it can choose not to use such free services and find paid alternatives instead that promise greater privacy. Though limited, they do exist.
Granted, the internet is an inherent social force that’s driven by networks and trends, so most people tend to gravitate to services that most other people are already using. So seeking out alternatives is easier said than done, since those that do so will likely find themselves alone or out of the loop.
Perhaps the fact that most people have (thus far) chosen to use the services that mine their data says something about what we value more, or about how unconcerning the whole process ultimately seems. Indeed, it’s pretty much become a given that that is how the internet works:
Along with other internet companies, Google mines the data it collects from users for two purposes. One is to improve the user experience, making its various online services more personal, useful and rewarding for the individual—and thereby increasing their popularity. The other purpose is to provide better targeted information for advertisers.
Like other firms offering free services, Google makes its living out of matching the right kind of advertising to the specific interests of its individual users. To do so, it needs to know their likes and purchases as well as their identifiers and demographics, including name, sex, age, address, current location and income bracket.
If truth be told, no-one needs to eavesdrop to discover such things. People willingly volunteer all manner of facts about themselves when registering or subscribing to various online services. Scraping such information off social networks and combining it with data drawn from sites for searching, shopping, downloading, streaming or whatever lets social marketers infer all they need to know about most individuals.
That is fine for the vast majority of internet users, who are happy to trade a measure of privacy for the convenience of using popular sites like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. That such convenience comes free of charge makes the trade an even better deal. But where to draw the line?
There’s already growing concern about whether we’ve gone too far in willingly giving up our information to internet companies (and whether those firms themselves have been crossing the line). But at the article notes, most of what we share is already public knowledge: the stuff we want to buy, the movies we like, the personal views we hold, etc. Isn’t it unreasonable to expect companies that are offering a free service to not, at the very least, utilize this innocuous data to sustain their operations? (After all, there are overhead costs to cover). Well, that’s where it gets a little complicated:
It is one thing to reveal personal preferences such as favourite films, TV shows, dishes, books or music tracks. However, most people (though not all) stop short of blurting out more intimate details about their private lives. Even so, all those innocuous bits of self-revelation can be pieced together, jig-saw fashion, by intelligent algorithms. Throw in the digital paper-trails stashed in Google searches and Amazon purchases, and things can begin to get a little scary.
Babbage’s teenage daughter, for instance, uses his Amazon account and credit card to buy everything from romantic novels to cosmetics and underwear. As a result, he gets bombarded by e-mails recommending other female items he might like to purchase. Anyone leaning over his shoulder could easily label him a pervert or worse.
So is the onus on companies to refrain — or be legally forced to refrain — from prying into our more personal tastes and habits? Or is this once again a small price to pay for the convenience that such “personalized” services offer? Maybe we’re the ones that need to take action, as the Babbage columnist feels.
But with the convenience of using free online services, even those offered by major brands, comes the responsibility to be personally vigilant, to watch out for oneself—and to be willing to pay for services that offer higher levels of security, freedom from advertising, or simply a better quality of service all round. One of Babbage’s colleagues says he would happily pay for Twitter if it provided proper analytics. He would pay for Facebook, too, if it did not compress his photographs so much.
Ultimately, though, Babbage is more concerned about identity theft than with Google selling his likes and dislikes to advertisers. This is one of the fastest growing white-collar crimes around, with an identity being stolen somewhere at least once every four seconds (see “Your life in their hands”, March 23rd 2007). The average cost of restoring a stolen identity is reckoned to be $8,000, and victims spend typically 600 hours dealing with the nightmare—plus many years more restoring their good name and credit record.
Personally, I side with Babbage in that I see little conceivable harm in the mining of already-public or innocuous data, but do feel that the potential for identity theft is a growing and real threat, one made easier by all the data flowing around on the web. And what about private messages or email? What would happen if someone were to hack into our Facebook, Google, or smartphone accounts and expose our personal conversations? Are we to just avoid such exchanges on the web?
And will our tacit acceptance of this arrangement lead to a blurring of what’s public and private? As people become more willing and able to share more about themselves online, do we risk undermining our own sense of personal space? Maybe it doesn’t even matter and we’re happy to share these things; after all, humans have always been keen on self-expression, and the rate of doing so has always increased alongside advances in media (consider the then-unprecedented outflow of opinions and data once the printing press was invented).
Anyway, what are your thoughts?