Your Privacy Is A Commodity And You Will Continue To Give it Away

Lego Storm Trooper Minifig in ChainsWe live in a rapidly evolving time. It’s scary. We’re going from a time where we lived our lives in private to where we are increasingly living in public. What we did behind closed doors, what media we consumed, what conversations we had, who our friends were, what news articles we read and what we liked, was known only to us.

The only way companies and governments were able to find out this information about us was through huge expensive research initiatives where armies of college students were deployed to ask us what we thought and what did. It was our choice to give this information away or not.

But increasingly we’re giving away that information “for free” and far more of it than we’ve ever given away before. Why? In simplest terms we gain social capital from our over-sharing but it goes way beyond that.

Invasion Of Your Privacy With Consent

Every week there seems to be a new story about some app or social networking service that is being accused of violating your privacy. Facebook is almost always somewhere in the mix as they are the service that is most aggressively pushing the boundaries of our privacy. Over the weekend a new app called Girls Around Me sparked off the debate again. The app pulled Foursquare check-ins from public Facebook profiles to locate girls in your area. Creepy? Yes. In violation of any rules? Nope. But it was still pulled down. This app basically confirmed all the worst fears people have about geolocation.

Despite this, and possibly much worse, we will continue to give up our personal data. Not only will we continue to give up our personal data, we will gladly give up even more than we are today.

I’ve argued in the past that our privacy was already an illusion and have even gone as far as to suggest that geolocation could eventually make us feel safer.

Personal Information Is The New Oil

You may remember sometime last year (seems like longer) that everyone was saying that your personal information was the new oil. That collectively our personal data would fuel a whole new economy. The analogy was heavily championed by CEO Michael Fertik. The World Economic Forum even released a study (PDF) which praised the social good which could be done with this data.

I had the opportunity to hear Fertik speak at Gnomedex on the topic. Fertik believes that  our personal information is a currency we can use and that services will spring up that will broker our data for us to those companies which wish to use it. Unfortunately for Fertik, that information broker already exists and it’s called Facebook.

Why We Give Up Our Privacy

We all (those heavily involved in social media) understand intuitively that  there are benefits that outweigh the risks involved in sharing our data. And when you get down to it, the use of information brokers is just too cumbersome and costly to use. Who’s going to pay for the service? Large data gathering companies aren’t going to pay for it because there’s more public data than there ever has been. Your data is a commodity. Sure it’s unique to you, but for the purposes of data gathering, your data isn’t special. So if someone was going to use a data broker, they would have to pay for it themselves. And I think we’ve already demonstrated we’re not going to do that.

We may not like it but we seem perfectly content to let Facebook manage our data for us.

The Future Is Transparent

But don’t despair. We are receiving plenty of benefit in trade for our data and we’re only going to get more. Right now we have unlimited use of World changing services like Facebook. Could you imagine going back to a pre-Facebook world? A World without Facebook would seem like post-apocalyptic fiction. And it’s only the beginning.

Eventually our personal data will take us into the post-social age, where our every experience is layered with social data. We will all rely on, or work from, the crowd and the only way that will be possible is if we have access to each others data. With access to that data we will know who to reach out to, who we want to work with and who we trust. Without ever seeing or even talking to that person.

We will inherently distrust people who don’t share their data, the same way we distrust incoming callers who block caller-ID.

I’m not saying it’s all going to be rosy and shiny. There will be casualties along the way. Some people will be taken advantage of. Some people will be physically harmed. This is no different from it is today and is the sad downside of living in a society. And some people will “drop out.” We’ll see some people become Digital Agoraphobics.

One Final Note

I’m not saying we should throw all privacy out the window and just abandon ourselves to the whim of corporations. We need to be smart about how we move forward because I believe most of the damage will be done not in the final state but on the path there. During the transition there will be an imbalance of data. Some people will use this imbalance to their advantage and that’s what we have to mitigate. Additionally I believe that if companies want to participate in this new transparent world, they themselves have to become more transparent.

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About Tac Anderson

Social media anthropologist. Communications strategist. Business model junkie. Chief blogger here at New Comm Biz.
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  • Katie Ford

    Your last point is a HUGE one.  Too many people are making these trades unwittingly, because the companies involved have made it intentionally difficult to decipher their privacy policies and practices. 

  • tacanderson

    Most people don’t realize that most inequality happens during times of transition regardless of what the end state is. And yes, terms of services and user agreements are the first area that need to be fixed.

  • Pete

    “A World without Facebook would seem like post-apocalyptic fiction. ”

    This is quite an exaggeration. Although I am a heavy social media user (very active on Facebook and LinkedIn, somewhat less on Twitter and Google+) I can very easily imagine a world without social networks (I used to live in it 6 years ago). The only point in using social networks is that it is an effective medium – and it is effective only as long as (almost) everybody are using it. Your analysis neglects the fact that people will lose their control not only over trivial information – name, job, age, harmless pictures – but also over increasingly important and really personal info – imagine what can (and will) happen when everybody starts to sequence their DNA. There will be a backlash and it will be more severe than you think precisely because the indirect cost of sharing information will rise – and I am quite confident that it will rise far more than the benefits of putting your info out there.

    “With access to that data we will know who to reach out to, who we want
    to work with and who we trust. Without ever seeing or even talking to
    that person…We will inherently distrust people who don’t share their data, the same way we distrust incoming callers who block caller-ID.”

    You are dramatically overestimating the willingness of the general population to communicate with people they do not know personally. You are also forgeting the potential of free-riding and cheating to make the system unworkable. Essentially, this is the reason why online dating sites do not work for a lot of people.

    As for distrust about people not sharing their data – true, it may be there but the data shared will not be significantly different than that of a public facebook/linkedin profile – name, profile pic, job, projects working/worked on, general outline of interests and hobbies, etc. Most of the info we share will be visible only to our circle of friends – it will not be public in any way.

  • davinabrewer

    I’m with Pete on overstating FB – or any other networks – importance. I’d lose single-signin and not much else. Sure I’d miss Twitter and the rest of it; but most of the people that matter to me, I’d still have good old fashioned emails and phone numbers and blogs to reach out and connect. The distrust, those we don’t know – it’s a ‘have or have nots’ shift and I’m seeing it now. Those who take LinkedIn and FB and Klout seriously (sometimes too much so), as the standards, those to whom they have zero relevance to their jobs or daily lives.

    I agree that we are the commodity of these services, that people will continue to give away their data because of the conveniences and benefits they provide. There will be trade offs. Privacy is an illusion but we can’t give up on the idea either. People need to speak out and pull down the “Stalkers R Us” apps – and not make assumptions about the businesses we so freely reveal ourselves. It’s often written that we tell Google things NO ONE else knows, there needs to be watchdogs and yes, transparency. Enjoyed reading this, thanks. FWIW.

  • Barry Hurd

    I’m amazed by the number of things people willingly throw away when it comes to privacy.

    As someone who has studied digital profiling very intensively, including having a mother and father in the NSA, I’m usually left with a painful feeling of loss when I see people mindless logging into banking accounts, e-mail servers, school systems, and travel bookings.

    From an archival standpoint few of us realize how this data is used across different time spans: our children will have digital lives that can be reverse engineered and micro-managed by both private and government entities.

    In the next few years the criminal element will also become even larger: identity thieves will control so much information from one or two simple data breaches that hundreds of thousands or even millions of people will be subject to crimes we don’t even comprehend.

    The biggest question comes from global participation…

    If there are twenty different jurisdictions for migratory personal data, the ability to regulate and mitigate the new personal information economy becomes impossible.