The concept of privacy is undergoing a radical transformation, thanks to our continuing willingness to provide companies like Facebook and Google our data for free. If, before, we largely lived our lives in private, we now live our lives in public. In many cases, we no longer even know what is public and what is private, who has our information, and what they are doing with it. It is increasingly the case that whatever we do online is now part of the public domain – even our so-called "private" lives on Facebook are now being opened up to public scrutiny on demand by employers and others. We are told, of course, that all of this tracking and monitoring by companies like Google and Facebook is helping to “personalize” the Web, to help us "filter" the right information and data, and to make our lives easier. However, is it the case that we no longer have a presumed right to privacy?
Brad Rosen, a professor of law and computer science at Yale, recently gave a talk at a TEDx Yale event in which he characterized this as a transformation from privacy as a "right" to privacy as a "norm." Or, as he put it, we've reached a new era of privacy best characterized as "it ain't cool, bro." In other words, we may intuitively know what should be private, but usually can not point to a legal precedent to support our viewpoint. When someone takes the information that should be private and opens it up to the public domain, it ain't cool, bro. Say you write a relationship status update on Facebook intended only for specific friends, and one of your friends takes that information and willfully shares it on someone else's Facebook Timeline without your knowledge. Well, that ain't cool. Employers asking for public access to your Facebook profile? That ain't cool, either. The problem is that there is not actually a law that protects that right to privacy, it is simply a "norm."
And it's not just Facebook. Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic recently documented all the ways that we are being tracked online, and the figures were astounding – there are 100+ companies that track our activities online as soon as we start using the Web. Some of them we suspect – Google, Microsoft and Yahoo – while many others are so nameless and bland that we wouldn’t recognize them if someone mentioned them in polite conversation. The browser, for lack of a better term, has become a peeping tom's window into our personal lives:
"This morning, if you opened your browser and went to NYTimes.com, an amazing thing happened in the milliseconds between your click and when the news about North Korea and James Murdoch appeared on your screen. Data from this single visit was sent to 10 different companies, including Microsoft and Google subsidiaries, a gaggle of traffic-logging sites, and other, smaller ad firms. Nearly instantaneously, these companies can log your visit, place ads tailored for your eyes specifically, and add to the ever-growing online file about you.
There's nothing necessarily sinister about this subterranean data exchange: this is, after all, the advertising ecosystem that supports free online content. All the data lets advertisers tune their ads, and the rest of the information logging lets them measure how well things are actually working... Every move you make on the Internet is worth some tiny amount to someone, and a panoply of companies want to make sure that no step along your Internet journey goes unmonetized."
This online scramble to monetize our personal information is blurring the traditional notion of privacy. Again, privacy is no longer a right, it is a norm. From a purely legal perspective, companies like Google argue that all of this massive data collection does not intrude on our privacy because they do not collect personal data like our Social Security numbers. In addition, they emphasize that we are essentially "anonymous" to all the advertisers tracking our data since our names are not directly attached to all this data coursing through the veins of the Internet. They further claim (usually) that they won’t share all this data with third parties without our knowledge. Fair enough – but as anyone familiar with black hat hacking techniques knows, it is sometimes enough to know basic Facebook profile information – especially date of birth - in order to make informed guesses as to passwords and Social Security numbers.
Take a step back and realize what we are talking about here: slowly but surely, companies are chipping away at our right to privacy. The recent flare-ups online are becoming too obvious to ignore now: employers asking for our Facebook profile information, Google constructing a single online profile of all of our data across all of its platforms including Google+, and the recent debate about whether or not Google was siphoning off data from Apple's Safari browser. An entire industry has sprouted up online with a relatively simple business model: take all this data on the Web collected from following us around all day and use it to show us ads and get us to click on certain buttons.
If you're not the customer, then you're the product being sold. If you didn't already know this, apologies for spoiling your day.
Privacy is now the price we pay for all of the Web services that we consume every day for free. Think about it – when’s the last time you paid Google for a search or Facebook for a birthday reminder or photo upload? By giving away our personal data, we ensure that these services continue to be provided to us for free. The price tag, though, has become too high. While the Obama Administration has stepped in with proposed legislation such as a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights that is intended to protect the privacy of consumers online, it’s clear that the scope and extent of the problem is not going away. When the best and brightest minds in Silicon Valley decide that we no longer have the right to privacy, it is only a matter of time until each of us really is leading our lives in public.
image: Computer Keyboard with Security Key / Shutterstock