Usage of mobile devices is soaring. Engagement in social media is soaring. We are wittingly and unwittingly opening up our intimate lives to the public — and commercial — eye.
There is no privacy in the internet. Cookies are now part of the vernacular and we are aware that as we visit web sites, and buy from them, we are leaving a trace of ourselves behind. Most of the time we accept that. For example, when Amazon recommends some books to me based on what I have read and what others like me have read, I find that useful. I am trading off some privacy for what I consider is a useful benefit — knowingly.
But suddenly the traces I leave behind are growing considerably. I am now leaving these breadcrumbs in the physical world as well. Mobile applications already track the phone numbers I dialled, who is in my contacts list, and so on… But they are now also tracking my precise movements, which route I take to work, which doctor I’ve visited, where I drop off my kids at school. And of course, they are tracking my children as well.
Another big change from the past is that I am now creating content as much as I am consuming it. So it becomes easier to ascertain my political and religious affiliations, who my friends and family are, and what I like or dislike.
Users are only now starting to realise the extent of what they’re leaving behind, as well as the extent to which companies are using that data to market directly to them — or worse, have users do the marketing for them (see my previous post). To that end, companies pass that information to ad networks, and people are often surprised by discovering through how many hands their data gets passed.
This opens up questions of what exactly constitutes trespassing and whether active consent of users is needed or not.
The Law is only starting now to catch on and many countries are preparing legislation that forces transparency and requires opt-in to new marketing programs. Europe is much stricter than the US, but even there new bills are being prepared (see below).
But in my mind, there are two courts, the judicial courts and the courts of public opinion. I believe that as users become more savvy they will be handing down their “sentences” by moving away from applications that don’t satisfy their own notions of privacy protection.
I am not bemoaning the disappearance of privacy on the internet. It is naive to think we can put the genie back in the bottle. I am only saying that we should allow people to make their conscious decision on whether that particular sacrifice of privacy is worth the benefit it brings or not. At the end of the day, it is a trade-off. A trade-off that only the user can make, and it is incumbent on companies to convince you that it is a trade-off worth making. Smart companies will do that. By being so open and transparent about their intentions, they can only gain customers. Hiding behind 30 pages of T&Cs just doesn’t cut it, in my opinion.
Some extra reading:
A must-read: how Target figured out a girl was pregnant, before her father did: http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/02/16/how-target-figured-out-a-teen-girl-was-pregnant-before-her-father-did/ and the original article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/magazine/shopping-habits.html
“Their Apps will Track You. Will Congress Track Them?” Upcoming US legislation around privacy. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/06/technology/legislation-would-regulate-tracking-of-cellphone-users.html?ref=technology