My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:
There is a lesson that I have preached to my children for years when it comes to using free services on the internet — if you are not paying for it, you are the product being sold. The recent revelations regarding Facebook confirm that lesson, but also highlight just how much of an illusion privacy has become in modern society.
The most recent privacy breach by Facebook garnered so much media attention because there is a connection to President Donald Trump, but it is hardly a new revelation. Facebook collects data about the people who use it and sells that information to anyone who can afford it. Facebook’s entire business model is predicated on collecting, shaping and selling its users’ information. Facebook’s customers are not the people who use it to share pictures of their meals and pets. Facebook’s customers are the people who buy information about Facebook users.
Facebook is hardly the only company that operates this way. They have merely become one of the largest and most popular because they created an application that people enjoy using. There are plenty of other companies with similar business models. Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn, Google, Spotify, Pandora, Tinder and on and on. Even many websites for which you pay will sell any information they collect about you to anyone with a credit card. And since many people access their favorite sites on their mobile devices, location and other information can also be collected.
Then there are the data brokers who amalgamate information from many sources to create incredibly detailed and accurate profiles of people. They collect information about your buying habits, internet search activity, medical information, income, address, what guns you own, what movies you like, who your friends are and much more. These companies know more about people than their families or neighbors.
All of this collecting, buying and selling of information is legal. Then there is the illegal activity. All of this information is stored somewhere and people want it. Every week there is another story about some company being hacked and people’s information being stolen. Any information you keep on a computer will eventually be stolen. It is a matter of when, not if.
Worried yet? There is more. The next wave in breaking down privacy barriers is already here. The popularity of voice-driven technology like Siri, Alexa, Google Home and others has opened the door to a new way for businesses or hackers to collect information about you. Each of these devices is constantly listening to everything you say as it waits for you to say the key words to activate it. When a person uses these devices, their words are recorded and sent into the gigantic data processing hubs where they can be stored and used for anything.
Now people are sending their DNA to businesses through the mail to get a report back on what their ethnic heritage is or what diseases and disorders they are genetically predisposed to. These companies are creating massive databases of DNA that can be sold and used for everything from marketing products to redirecting government programs to something nefarious.
The fascinating aspect of the collapse of privacy is that it is almost entirely voluntary. People are willingly sharing incredibly personal information about themselves all over the internet. In an odd quirk of human nature, people who are unwilling to share details about themselves to their friends at church are more than willing to share their most intimate details on a digital platform that the entire world can access.
There are some legitimate and positive reasons for people to share personal information online. Having detailed information about people allows some companies to deliver a more personalized service. By knowing more about their customers, retailers, airlines, banks and many other companies can customize their offerings to the individual consumer. Consumers love it.
All of that information is also being used for more general societal benefits. For example, Google has partnered with the Centers for Disease Control to track flu outbreaks in real time based on spikes in the use of certain search terms. This allows the CDC to better allocate resources to where and when they are needed most.
People also enjoy the convenience of technology. Of course it is easy enough for you to use a remote to turn off the television, get up and adjust the thermostat, close the garage door, set an alarm, and turn on the radio. But it is even easier to just say, “hey Siri” and let it do the rest. The price of that convenience is that Apple, which provides Siri, now knows what channel you were on when you turned the television off, what temperature you like at that time of day, what kind of garage door opener you have, when you plan to get up and what music you like. What will Apple do with that information? That is none of your business. It is theirs.
Of course, there is a darker reason for people being willing to abandon any notion of privacy. The vile parts of human nature like vanity, greed and pride drive people to want to share things that were considered private 30 years ago. For every picture of a silly cat on one site, there is a picture of some guy’s private parts somewhere else.
Our culture has certainly crossed into a post-privacy era. It was a threshold we sprinted across willingly and without hesitation. There are many benefits, but also great risks. It will take a while for our laws and expectations to catch up.