Privacy, Secrecy, the Web, and Ads

I’ve always been a private person. The guy in the room that didn’t care to speak much about anything that mattered, the guy in the room that heard everything, but disclosed very little. The quiet guy. I wasn’t trying to hide bad things, nor was I trying to hide good things — I just preferred not to talk about me to other people. I am private.

At some point in college though, the allure of all of these social services proved too strong and I joined my peers. I became less private and less comfortable. Then, as I began to settle into a new stage of my life in 2010, I noticed that I had given up a lot of my privacy. It was unsettling.

I began a personal campaign to take back some of my privacy and as part of that used only services that treated me as though I was the customer, not the product. Generally speaking only the paid services.

In an excellent essay for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore talks about the difference between privacy and secrecy, making this over arching point:

The opening of Mazzini’s mail, like the revelations that the N.S.A. has been monitoring telephone, e-mail, and Internet use, illustrates the intricacy of the relationship between secrecy and privacy. Secrecy is what is known, but not to everyone. Privacy is what allows us to keep what we know to ourselves. Mazzini considered his correspondence private; the British government kept its reading of his mail secret.

I urge you to read the entire essay.

I place great value on privacy and also place great value on publicly sharing my thoughts on a website, accessible to anyone. This is not a contradiction.

As a society we hate privacy, but as individuals we cherish it. We hate it when friends keep things from us, or limit what they share online, but we in turn hate sharing everything with our friends. We block someone, while criticizing them for blocking us.

The larger issue is that there are some things that we naturally assume to be private, which turn out not to be. No one thought their emails were being read, but likely assumed they could be read — unless they were super criminals why else would anyone care about their email? Yet, our emails are being read in the sense that they are being cataloged. Not because we are super criminals right now, but because we just may become super criminals later on.

In effect, with programs like PRISM, we are being monitored now so that we may be stopped later if, presumably, we’re among the very small fraction of people that need to be stopped later.

We can argue the legality of this invasion of privacy, force the blame on whomever we wish, but I place the blame squarely at our own feet. For years we have been proving to companies like Google and Facebook that their usage of our data, our secrets, is of little concern to us. Just don’t charge us money to use your stuff.

These companies already share our data with Pfizer to target us for their blue pill ads. What hint have we given them that it’s not OK to share our data with the U.S. Government?

What stance have we taken as a society that the Government should have picked up on where we say: place value here. Our actions to date have said one thing: make it free, take what you want from us, so long as it’s not cash.

And if this is the standard by which so many web companies have been operating, who’s to blame when those companies make the rather logical and rational decision to allow the Government access in the name of Freedom?

Of course the problem doesn’t stop with free services, it extends to paid services like Office365, Dropbox, iCloud, etc. What stance have we taken to stop using these services until they respect our privacy? When someone as privacy concerned as me refuses to read most terms of service, and privacy policies, it becomes resoundingly clear that there’s a lack of caring on the part of consumers.

Just make it free and easy, and we’ll use it.

The debate about data privacy is now more complicated than just what is free and what is paid — neither has proven to be trustworthy. The debate now centers around which companies are more worried about protecting their users than they are with protecting ambiguous bad guys.

Hollywood has been conditioning us for years to believe that any person with a Mac (logo covered of course) and a few dozen terminal windows can break into any computing device anywhere. Is anybody really shocked that Hollywood wasn’t that far off? The bigger shock is that we’re all potential bad guys in the eyes of the government.

As much as I’d like to place the blame squarely at the feet of the Government, I see little logic in that argument. Let’s step back and look at the U.S. at a macro level: The country we see does not seem concerned about privacy in the least. We blindly turn over troves of marketing data about ourselves, without even reading what will be done with that data, in the name of, well, getting our desired username on the latest and greatest service.

We religiously carry little bits of plastic for each store we shop in so that we may save a few dollars, all the while providing troves of market research and targeting mechanisms to companies. We carry these loyalty cards with so much loyalty, that we often turn around and go back home if we find ourselves at the store without our card. God forbid we miss out on those points.

Given that our society demonstrably does not care about its online privacy, I wonder two things:

  1. Wouldn’t it have been out of touch for the U.S. Government to assume we do care and check with us before storing all our communication in a big fat database?
  2. Even if the government had disclosed the existence of such technology, and the subsequent use of it, would we have even bothered to read the privacy policy?

In that sense, PRISM truly seems to have been made in the image of American internet users.

Originally posted for members on: June 20, 2013
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