The Upside and Downside of Privacy on the Web

In many ways being on the internet is like living in a small village where everyone seems to know your business. This can be a good thing and a bad thing depending on the context.

In villages or provincial towns and cities like Galway or Dublin, the possibility of being able go about one’s activities with any degree of anonymity is a forlorn hope. To get lost in the crowd and be just another face, another digit on some statistical sheet, you have to live in one of the major metropolises of the world such as London, New York or Los Angeles.

You won’t disappear unless you want to and have some determination and guile but unless you do something exceptional, either good or bad, it is very unlikely that you will be noticed at all.

The upside is that since nobody knows — or cares — what you get up to, there is definitely more scope for expression and play than otherwise would be possible in the closed communities of ‘social tyranny’ that exist outside the metropolitan life.

The downside is that because nobody cares enough to watch out for us or protect us then behaviour of a purely self-indulgent nature can often end in catastrophe. One bad choice, even for the most self-disciplined of us, is often all it takes for a cascade of disastrous consequences to ensue.

Once the joys and whatnot of ‘Big City’ life have been explored and experienced there is very often a return to one’s roots. To the safe, the known and the predictable.

As large as the internet is and as large as the social networks are the majority of most people’s online social interactions are amongst just a few people. This is true even if the individual’s profile has large counts associated with it.

Although we live on the doorstep of the largest metropolis ever — the World Wide Web — most of us conduct our business in the parochial manner of small village-like tribes. This makes sense as we have lived in small groups congregating around camp fires at tribal gatherings for warmth and company, and coming to live to together in villages for mutual protection for most of humanities existence. Cities are a very recent blip in the historical timeline of humans.

Despite this history of close association many people want to apply metropolitan values of privacy, i.e. anonymous unless otherwise, to this blatantly parochial digital existence.

Certainly, here in Europe, we are protected by Article 8 of European Convention on Human Rights under which have a right to have our private and family life, our home and our correspondence respected.

Our medical records and our tax records, which our very existence in a civil society calls into being, are (I really hope) extremely well protected. Certainly, up until now breaches of police and military security have been down to rogue individuals that have been granted access to the system.

Whether online or out here in ‘real life’ these very vital aspects of our privacy are protected as much as we can reasonably hope.

But securing this sort of private data is not the same as the kind of thing as having a private life.

Whether we like it or not, we have no choice about the existence medical and tax records that concern themselves with fundamental aspects of our lives such as our health and financial affairs. The same for our entries on other public service databases. Alternatively, we do have a choice about what we do in online social space and who we share things with.

Although, not perfect and always with the need for practical, good sense, we can more or less control, to levels greater than just a year or two ago, how much of our online activities the people in our online village can monitor. A little bit of social media savviness can make life very difficult for the digital curtain twitchers.

The problem is that the behemoths of the internet such as Google, Facebook, etc., run on a couple of false assumptions that run contrary to how we have lived our lives for millennia.

In our daily lives we conduct our activities as individuals in a finely crafted, framework of social give and take. Our brains have evolved excellent stratagems for engaging, negotiating and coping with the nature and structure of a dynamic, constantly shifting set of behaviours and relationships.

In contrast to this, now natural for us, way of going about our lives, the first assumption regarding the handling of data that seems to be used by the large scale web operations is based on the Stewart Brand’s much misunderstood concept that information wants to be free.

This slogan seems to offer the philosophical justification for the seemingly constant and irritating violations of privacy and outright gaffes that beset the management of our accounts on the various social networks from time to time.

The second assumption follows on from the first and seems to be based on the false corollary that because we can access data easily we should share it easily too. Regardless of our preference on the matter.

This assumption fails to take into account that we, as humans, don’t share everything with everyone. For the most part, we are mostly very careful about what we share and with whom.

But what if all this data is aggregated and anonymized, what is the harm in that?

First of all, as you will probably be able to ascertain from this Google patent application, it is extremely hard to anonymize data. Once you know something, you know something.

The other argument appears to be that collecting our data and aggregating it is a good thing because it will results in a better, more enhanced online experience as the bushels of information gathered about us will be used to give us more of what we want. (As if that is a de facto good thing.)

Marketers and other interested parties can use the collected statistics generated from this collection exercise to improve their offerings for us. We are reassured that we should not worry as our data is anonymized and cannot be tracked back to us.

But this argument totally falls apart when I start receiving ads particularly targeted at me based on my online browsing activity. The opposing ideas that serve as a background to these two activities — anonymized data gathering and personal targeting — can’t possibly be true at the same time.

What is much worse is that when the data is gathered, if the Google Ads Preference page is anything to go by, it is wrong. Certainly in my case it is far from wholly right which amounts to the same thing.

This morning I went to Google Ads Preferences (you have to be signed into your own Google account) and discovered what Google thinks I like based on the sites I visit on the net.

Rather alarmingly, I signed out of my Google account in Safari to check the link and it still brought me back to the page with the above information on it. Google doesn’t seem to be giving me the basic respect of allowing me to completely sign out of its service — “Don’t be Evil.” Evil, perhaps not, but ill-mannered, certainly.

We all live in a village that is established in one social domain or another; work, home, online, etc. At the same time we can also all appreciate the wide range of good things that a major metropolis and its digital parallel, the World Wide Web, can offer.

However, this Big Brotherish attention to the minutiae of our online lives, whose only possible ultimate goal is to line shareholder’s pockets, is unnatural in terms of how humans really behave.

As well as being disrespectful, as regards people’s privacy, it is fundamentally misinformed through distortions in its own information gathering techniques and goodness knows what awfulness that will produce.

In the meantime, watch out for the curtain twitchers — they will always be with us.

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One thought on “The Upside and Downside of Privacy on the Web

  1. One of the reasons my record of online activities doesn’t match the reality of what I actually do may be down to my use of a Firefox extension called Priv3 from http://priv3.icsi.berkeley.edu…. I am not endorsing it because since I don’t really know how much I am being tracked I don’t know how much tracking this extension prevents.They do say Priv3 operates by selectively suppressing, “The inclusion ofthird-party web cookies when your browserpulls in content from the social networks, butdoes provide them if you decide to interactwith the social networking features.” 

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