Privacy and the Loss of Self

14 May

To paraphrase Bob Dylan, it doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the privacy wind blows. To take just one of many studies on the matter, KPMG’s annual Consumers & Convergence 2009 survey of 4,000+ global users reports that 87% of respondents are concerned with their privacy online. So it’s silly for Facebook to act surprised or defensive when users and analysts castigate the company for apparently breaching a trust about how it exploits the treasure trove of an individual’s data on its servers.

Keep in mind that privacy is different than security, which focuses on the loss of such important data as credit card information. (In that KPMG study, people give equal rank to their concerns for both.) Privacy is about the handing over of information about who you are and what you do. Losing your privacy to the likes of Facebook may not actually cost you a dime.

But you may lose your sense of self.

We all like to think of ourselves as unique individuals. We see our internal selves marching to the beat of a singular drummer. Like the character in the TV series “The Prisoner” we bellow into the uncaring universe: “I am not a number. I am a free man.”

The problem is that in the Google era of aggregated information, that’s not the case. It probably never was.

We all fall neatly into buckets of characteristics shared by others. Lots of others. Philosophically we may argue effectively that we are discrete individuals, but practically we are a proven part of a collective that can be categorized. To our feigned horror, the aggregated categories that we fall into are exploited by marketers who want to sell us stuff; and, to a true horror, we fall one-by-one into the hands of governments that wish to keep tabs on us to keep us in line.

Frankly, I’m not concerned about losing my privacy to advertisers who have the perfect product for a politically progressive, baseball fanatic who rides a bicycle, drinks craft-brew beers, and reads fiction and history. Getting that kind of targeted marketing would be fantastic. Leave it up to me to click the Buy button.

But I am very concerned about local, state, and federal agencies who might track how often I read Glenn Greenwald, visit TPMmuckraker, or retweet unabashed radicals. If and when that happens, it will be more than a false sense of my lost individualism that will have occurred. It will be my loss of freedom.


3 Responses to “Privacy and the Loss of Self”

  1. slamdunk May 14, 2010 at 11:06 am #

    Good post. I think government uses of the information is more troublesome than marketers.

  2. Shefaly May 14, 2010 at 11:06 am #

    I think the distinction between a private firm using one’s personal data or government using it is fallacious. Both advance their goals by prying into an individual’s personal data. The fallacy draws on the assumption that the private sector will always use data in aggregate forms hence one is effectively anonymous. And does not take into account the legal requirement for a private firm to turn in any and all data it may hold about an individual. In disaggregated, raw form. Imperfect data protection laws also mean that a private firm can and will aggregate information on an individual using third party databases which may or may not be accurate. For instance, some of us have reasonably outlier-type names; many do not. What’s to say faulty credit history of one John Smith won’t affect another John Smith in the same city? In the case of government, we can so far rely on their incompetence not to put a whole picture together (that said, did you know that when the British PM takes office, the Secret Service provides them with dossiers on people who are being considered for the cabinet?) but the private sector just attracts smarter people, invests more in tools etc.

    I think there is no reason to trust either having access too much data on any one. My opposition to Facebook or any one else’s creeping – and creepy – encroachment is absolute, not relative, not lulled by anonymisation and aggregation.

    That said I once wrote a series of posts on typologies. It infuriated many, not least mom bloggers who did not like my reference to an OFCOM report which called them “attention seekers” 😉 So much for aggregation that individuals came and attacked me on my own blog.

    • meh2meh May 15, 2010 at 7:18 am #

      All good points. But things differ from country to country, particularly your point about private firms required to turn over individual data to the government. For the time being, in the US, the government must go through some legal hoops before it can obtain said information. Google, for example, fought the Bush administration in 2006 in handing over even aggregated info and Yahoo ONLY handed over anonymous data in the same proceeding. Things are different in the EU and elsewhere.

      Actually, it’s only been recently that I have begun using my middle name because of my common moniker. I have been confused with other “Mark Halls,” mostly amusing inconveniences. but once a potentially dangerous situation. Still, with patience and a bit of time, things worked out.

      As in the UK, every potential nominee for office in the US is vetted by our FBI. It goes with the job description, I suppose. The idea is to root out spies/etc. and, to a lesser degree, corrupt people (or choose the right corrupt people). Here, I think the more one knows about someone seeking power, the better.

      It is good and right that there are people like you who are “absolute” in their opposition to FB and other organizations who gather information on their members. But it is, in my mind, clear that anything and, absolutely, everything I type onto a Web site will be available to someone with enough resources and will to get it–legally or otherwise. Scott McNealy, famously and notoriously, said in answer to a journalist’s query back in 1999 about privacy: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” Tragically, I fear, he’s right. But it would make the world a better place if people like you could prove him wrong.

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