Why are we concerned about privacy?

By August 20, 2007Facebook, Identity

This post has been forming in the back of my mind since I read Privacy and Personalisation: From Clickstream to Targeted Advertising on Read/Write web last week.  I was waiting until I met with Luke Razzell this morning to discuss the final two posts in our identity and startups series to make sure there wasn’t any overlap – there isn’t, so here we go.

For a long time I have thought that concerns about privacy are overdone – or more specifically that the benefits to be had from sharing some personal information far outweigh the risks.  If you have been reading this blog for a while you will have seen that thought as a recurring theme.  It is a issue that is at once critically important to predicting the future and difficult to do much more than guess at.

I will borrow the question from Helen on Technokitten:

Will the prospect of privacy become irrelevant as the myspace generation start to do the jobs we’re doing now?

Answer – YES – (and apologies for choosing the question to get the answer I wanted).

This is where the Read/Write web post comes in.  I’m going to take three brilliantly simple and clear quotes which convey all bar one of the reasons why it is my guess that privacy will diminish as an issue.

Firstly, these are emotional concerns, not rational ones:

Many times over the past few years I had conversations where people asked: But what about privacy? My answer is always: What exactly are you concerned about? The majority of people just worry about privacy as a word; they can’t express what it is that worries them. It is a conservative, mostly uninformed behavior: “I just don’t want them to know about me.”

Secondly, when you look at it there isn’t much to be worried about:

The good news about the people stalking our online behavior? They don’t want to hurt us, they just want our money. The reason retailers want to know our private information is because they want sell us things.

And finally, people are already showing they will give up on privacy pretty easily:

It is particularly odd to hear privacy concerns and then login into Facebook and see people putting everything about themselves in their profiles.

The final reason, and one that isn’t brought out explicitly in the Read/Write Web post is that sharing a little personal information is good for you.  It will allow advertisers to market to you more effectively, which increases the CPMs they can pay to your favourite sites who will then have more money to invest in improving their service to you.

  • At the risk of rowing against the tide of the zeitgeist, I must protest sir!

    The third point re privacy concerns vs dumping stuff in Facebook is a function of large scale ignorance, not wisdom of crowds. Most people just do not understand the risks, and are seduced by the chimera that “closed” systems like Facebook are secure.

    While you are right that most of the people who want your online data want to flog you stuff, there are two corollaries:

    (i) Not everyone who wants to flog you stuff is necessarily interested in doing it in a benign way (spam, hard sell, data mining, scams etc…)

    (ii) There is a % of people on-net who wish more harm than just to flog you stuff – they want your ID so they can buy stuff, with your money.

    To answer Helen’s question – it will all seem irrelevant until it becomes very relevant.

    Imho the on-net systems today are just not nuanced enough to separate wheat from chaff yet.

    These people are scarily effective today with scamming via obscure email addresses, the impact of giving them large amounts of your data gratis is….well, I would advise against it.

    Yrs blimpishly…..

  • At the risk of rowing against the tide of the zeitgeist, I must protest sir!

    The third point re privacy concerns vs dumping stuff in Facebook is a function of large scale ignorance, not wisdom of crowds. Most people just do not understand the risks, and are seduced by the chimera that “closed” systems like Facebook are secure.

    While you are right that most of the people who want your online data want to flog you stuff, there are two corollaries:

    (i) Not everyone who wants to flog you stuff is necessarily interested in doing it in a benign way (spam, hard sell, data mining, scams etc…)

    (ii) There is a % of people on-net who wish more harm than just to flog you stuff – they want your ID so they can buy stuff, with your money.

    To answer Helen’s question – it will all seem irrelevant until it becomes very relevant.

    Imho the on-net systems today are just not nuanced enough to separate wheat from chaff yet.

    These people are scarily effective today with scamming via obscure email addresses, the impact of giving them large amounts of your data gratis is….well, I would advise against it.

    Yrs blimpishly…..

  • nic

    Hey Alan – thanks for the comment. Really. It is great to step out of the echo chamber. We learn so much more from disagreement.

    Your point is well made – it would be foolish (naive even) to blunder forward sharing data indiscriminately. At the moment we share virtually no data though – and there must be some stuff we can share with limited risk. Perhaps done through a profile mechanism that keeps our email and IP addresses secret.

    I’m starting to think that moving this debate forwards means going to the next level of detail. That means being explicit about what data would be shared, making some estimates of the benefits of sharing, along with the risks and how they would be mitigated.

  • nic

    Hey Alan – thanks for the comment. Really. It is great to step out of the echo chamber. We learn so much more from disagreement.

    Your point is well made – it would be foolish (naive even) to blunder forward sharing data indiscriminately. At the moment we share virtually no data though – and there must be some stuff we can share with limited risk. Perhaps done through a profile mechanism that keeps our email and IP addresses secret.

    I’m starting to think that moving this debate forwards means going to the next level of detail. That means being explicit about what data would be shared, making some estimates of the benefits of sharing, along with the risks and how they would be mitigated.

  • Agree re next level, also agree re profile mechanisms based on metadata not data.

  • Agree re next level, also agree re profile mechanisms based on metadata not data.