Trading Our Privacy

In Rousseau’s social contract, people surrendered part of their autonomy to a central authority in order to gain the benefits of civil society, not least among which were social order and personal security.  In the Internet’s social contract, we seem to have given up our bargaining power.  All too often we surrender our privacy because of laziness and inertia.  Of course, we dress it up by claiming that a loss of privacy is the cost of increased efficiency.  Thanks to the open way we transact much of our social and personal business online, there is very little that can’t be found out about us with minimal effort. Given the ubiquity of Google, much of our lives are discoverable by Google.  Your e-mail?  Google has it.  Your social media exchanges?  Google is indexing those as well.

I don’t mean to pick on Google.  Let’s look at Facebook.  People flock to that platform daily, jump in with both feet, and start recording the minutiae of their lives in this public forum.  How many of them bother to look at, much less do something about, the privacy options Facebook provides? And, what about all those online retailers who know not only what you buy, but what catches your interest as you browse their inventory.

Did we mean for this to happen?  Should we just roll-over and take it or is this something we should fight?

I’ve posted below a video from Google that discusses their alternative to the Internet’s lack of privacy.  Google calls it the Opt-Out Village.  While the video is tongue-on-cheek, it does provide a sobering reminder of how much of our privacy we’ve surrendered.  I suspect Google considers privacy an over-valued relic of the past.  And, based on our recent behavior, it’s hard not to reach that conclusion.  But is that a fair conclusion?  On the other hand, do we deserve privacy when we seem to value it so little?

Google’s Opt-Out Village:

[Hat tip to Neil Richards for passing on the Google video link.)

[Photo Credit:  Mikey G Ottawa]


What Do Your Searches Disclose About Your Work?

When you use a search engine, you’re thinking aloud.  It’s almost as if you’re standing in the middle of Central Park or Hyde Park shouting, “Does anyone know anything about [X]?” In Central Park, at least, people are likely to ignore you and just keep walking.  What would happen, however, if someone stopped, paid attention, and made a note of your request?  And, what if they then noticed that other people were asking about [X] and that these people worked with you?  Could that someone reach the conclusion that you and your colleagues are interested in [X]? Now, what if X=Initial Public Offering, or X=Merger, or (more likely these days) X=Bankruptcy? What would that attentive person know about you and your work?

I’ve heard reports of investment bankers and lawyers around the world beginning their research assignments on popular internet search engines.  What if someone noticed that lots of people at a particular firm were interested in Company [Y] and the topic “initial public offering.”  That’s normally the kind of information that is considered highly confidential within a company, an investment bank or a law firm.  However, do our searches on public search engines, social media sites or commercial subscription databases reveal information to a careful observer that we don’t intend to disclose?  What could that observer do with that information?

Do you remember when Amazon reported on which books seemed popular in certain organizations?  (E.g., we’ve been selling lots of books on bankruptcy to people at the ACME Company.)   It is possible for providers of public search engines or commercial databases to gather this data and make sense of it.  Is anyone doing that now with respect to our searches outside the firewall?  Should we be doing something about that?

[Photo Credit:  pavel1998]


My Low-Level Online War

Today is a day for confessions. While I place a very high premium on honesty, I have given myself leave to be “economical with the truth” in one particular area: when an online service starts asking for my personal data, I start obscuring the facts. For example, why does any social media platform need to ask me for my birth date AND a separate security question/answer? Therefore, I generally don’t provide my actual birth date. It’s not because of any foolishness about trying to hide my age. It’s because this age of identify theft and privacy incursions has me concerned about where I can legitimately draw the lines between my private data and the world.  So, my low-level war is about muddying the waters for marketers and others who lurk online and attempt to profile me for their financial gain or for other nefarious purposes.

To be honest, I’ve been a privacy hawk for years.  Shortly after we first married, I mortified my husband by refusing to provide my social security number to a shop checkout clerk who (improperly) demanded it to verify a credit card purchase.  I made a fuss and tied up a rather long line of people waiting to make their purchases.  And, I’ve kept making a fuss whenever someone other than the tax authorities has asked for this number.

I’ve since learned that I’m not the only one engaged in a guerrilla war.  Chris Brogan wrote today about why he gives April 1 as his birthday when, in fact, his actual birthday is a few days later.  Here’s how he explains it:

I don’t do this as an April Fools thing. I do it because I’ve chosen to tell all the databases of the Internet one fact that’s different from the real world. I do this to see where my data ends up.

Do you take any measures (no matter how quixotic) to protect your privacy online?  If so, do you have any tips you could pass on?  If not, why not?

[Photo Credit:  Keso]