The inconvenience of privacy revisited

Back in 2004 I wrote an article called, The Inconvenience of Privacy. It was the first article I wrote about privacy, and I still go back and read it. Frankly it wasn’t a great article, the best thing about it was the premise of the title: Privacy is inconvenient to achieve even if it’s something people want!

The simple fact is that most people aren’t privacy fanatics. Most people don’t understand the implications of privacy issues, and most simply can’t be bothered to figure out how to keep their activity private. One common meme for the last few years is how “younger generations” today don’t care about privacy like “we used to” back in the pre-internet days.  I actually don’t agree with this statement – I’d argue that young people simply never care about privacy, in any generation. They don’t have anything to protect yet, they don’t have any real short term harm that could come from a lack of privacy. Until you have assets, a career, a professional reputation, a family – in other words – something to lose, privacy just doesn’t seem too important, especially since it’s so damn inconvenient to achieve.

The problem is that almost everything done on the internet is permanent. So while in the pre-internet world, our youthful indiscretions were washed away by time, the pictures from Spring Break 2009 are still showing up in web searches for your daughter’s name. And when her prospective bosses go and look her up online, their impression of her may well be set by the most indiscreet moments in her young life, certainly not what she’d want to be characterized by when interviewing for a job.

The problem is – with social media tools such as Facebook, and photo sharing sites like Flickr, the power to have these ‘interesting’ life moments immortalized is in the hands of others. And once something exists on the internet, it’s out in the public domain forever. Most people aren’t even aware of tools like “The Way Back Machine” or don’t realize that search engines maintain searchable archives of pages and images they’ve indexed.

With all the social unrest in less democratic and stable societies, privacy is more than just an issue of convenience or professional acceptance – it can be an issue of freedom and personal liberty – possibly even mortal danger. Technologies to understand who is tracking us, but in my opinion far more importantly, that protect us from being tracked, are floating around in the market. The most recent example that I’ve seen is SpotFlux, which raised $1M in venture funding.

Regardless of the issues, privacy and advertising are extremely intertwined due to the overlap of various behavioral targeting and tracking technologies and the fact that some consumers feel that their behavior is being tracked without permission to make some unnamed faceless corporation money. The upshot of this is at some point, a backlash against various tracking technologies – and broader adoption of extremely simplified and convenient technologies for keeping your online activity private will come onto the market. And the debate will simply end.

Then the debate about people blocking their activity from publishers will become a bigger issue, since publishers need to be able to track their users over sessions and over time, such that they can more easily sell ads. So privacy and advertising are deeply intertwined and simply can’t be disconnected.  The right solution to this problem has not come along yet, but I’m confident it will eventually.

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