How much should we really expect privacy?

PrivacyDerrick Harris wrote up a great piece for GigaOm today, Pondering Privacy, Part 2: Let’s get over ourselves already. In his article, he argues the following:

While the work privacy advocates do to highlight the tactics and implications of online data collection is commendable, it’s a little misleading. No, it’s not ideal that companies and agencies like the NSA potentially know so much about us, but the reality is that they probably know very little about any of us as individuals.

Harris is arguing that there is a certain amount of hubris in feeling violated by a government agency or company that doesn’t know us at a personal level, and what’s more, probably cares little about what we do. We think we’re at the center of the universe and that our data is interesting enough to warrant protection from prying eyes? Probably not. Very likely not. The truth about data collection centers on the idea of segmentation and patterns, not so much on the proverbial “needle in a haystack.” Looking for needles in haystacks is by definition a futile exercise. The NSA is looking for distinct patterns of behavior or associations, not at individuals.

Retailers and others who’d like to sell us something are looking for patterns that show how segmenting individuals can allow better targeting of messages that are likely to be more effective, as shown by analytics. Again, it isn’t about individuals, but about dividing data into logical groupings so that marketing can be efficient. The individual perspective only arises for customer service or other scenarios where it makes the most sense to know an individual’s history and context.

In other words, personal privacy concerns are probably not quite as personal as we think.

The opposing argument

The opposing point is the slippery slope argument…that if we allow this level of surveillance, we open the door to far worse. But what that far worse would be isn’t really clear, either. If governments and companies don’t care about us at an individual level, more data or lower safeguards won’t make a difference. Think of it this way…in man’s earlier days, the thin walls of huts in small villages afforded little to no privacy, and that’s how our race lived for a very long time (thank you, Alistair Croll for the idea). The idea of personal privacy is, a luxury of the anonymity of larger towns and cities and the ability to close doors and windows and lock out the world. These are benefits only available once to kings and not to the average citizen.

In other words, privacy is a relatively recent expectation for the vast majority of the planet’s citizens.

No one forced us to share

Harris brings up the point that we have sold our privacy souls for free services across the Web. He’s right. How many of us are asking to trade in free services for a higher expectation of privacy? I’ll bet not many. We either conveniently forgot or were terribly naive about every free account we signed up for. This is a great conversation that I hope continues as we adjust to rapidly changing technology. And if we think today’s passions are high, consider what happens as video surveillance creates all new levels of big data and potential privacy issues…

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