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The Chenope Blog

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January 17, 2015
by chenope
13 Comments

More Tech, More Privacy (Expectations)

Since an old Merc interview of mine is now finally showing up in print, the topic for this week’s blog will be the interplay between technology innovation and privacy entitlements.

There are two constants when discussing privacy and technology:

  • Each new wave of technology adoption brings with it expanded privacy entitlements.
  • Privacy is always a trade-off with something else. And it always will be. What does change is what the ‘something else’ is.

Back in the day, privacy was most often traded-off against simple convenience. Sure, you could take the few minutes to go outside with your cell phone – or in the dark ages, walk to a pay phone – to avoid those in neighboring cubicles overhearing your conversation. Or you could just break down and risk your co-workers overhearing bits and pieces of your conversation. With old technology or new, you still had to go out of your way for privacy. Cell phones certainly brought more privacy – for one thing, you could take them anywhere – but also vastly greater expectations of privacy. Think about it: most people these days would rather have a friend or stranger rifle through their wallet than browse their cell phone contents.

In more recent years, the privacy trade-off has increasingly been with the desire for unfettered online self-expression in forums such as Twitter, FB, etc. For example, a woman delighted with the cool new pair of shoes she just bought may want all of her friends to see how fashion-forward she is, and so will likely post a photo of said shoes. There’s no problem at all with that, until/unless the shoe maven in question feels like she is being stalked if all she sees for weeks afterwards are ads from the brand of the shoes and competitors of same – as she very well may. But it can be far worse still: what if it turns out to be the case that buying a certain type of shoes (say stilettos) at a certain time of week (say Friday afternoon) is strongly correlated to the purchase of particular types of lingerie or condoms within the same few hour period? The relevant ads from nearby stores are all but certain to find their way to her cell phone in a timely manner, potentially causing giant embarrassment.

But is that really a violation of privacy – given that shoes were purchased at a popular store on a well-trafficked street where there was no privacy – or just brands playing the real world probabilities? And even if it is the former, at what point does the average person come to understand that there is a certain amount of randomness in all of this? That even if the ads aren’t random in a purely statistical sense, the correlations are often weak ones – if still profitable. Our shoe maven may have simply fallen in love with the shoes, and just happened to be passing the shoe store on the way to visit her grandmother. In other words, you can’t judge a person by the ads which target them. When viewed in this light, unfortunately-timed ads are not so much an invasion of privacy as just plain unlucky. If you do think that this example is a violation of privacy, you ought to consider the following question. What if a shrewd lingerie store a block away from the shoe store strategically stationed someone outside the shoe store to hand coupons to anyone who comes out with a shopping bag? Would that also be a violation of privacy?

The right to online complaining – and just outright venting – is just as much of an entitlement as is bragging. If, for example, you complain online that United’s baggage-handling robots literally pulled your brand new luggage apart, you’ll likely soon get ads offering deals on a new suitcase. Hard to complain objectively about that: for one thing, maybe the ads are actually useful given the circumstances, and for another it is hard to argue that privacy should attach to a publicly made complaint. Still, even in this scenario, one can understand why the ‘right to be forgotten’ – forgive the twisting of the European catch phrase – could be desirable; for example, if each time you see one of the suitcase ads, you become incredibly aggravated because it reminds you how shabbily you were treated by the airline.

Nonetheless, at the end of the day, few people are willing to give up their rights to self-expression online. So while there may be much hand wringing and pontification about privacy, most will not change their behavior. Effectively, at least in the U.S., the tradeoff has been made.

The question however remains on how many things in the so-called Internet of Things will reach the level of addictiveness or need such that privacy concerns are all but neutered. Even leaving aside concerns about hacking, there are legitimate concerns about what kinds of data could be collected, and what correlations could be drawn from them. In today’s WSJ, there was an article about Google suspending the sale of Google glass. It cited privacy concerns and lack of real world usefulness as the two main reasons. No surprise on either count. Few people can honestly say that their glance hasn’t lingered over long on something that it really should not have – call it the rubbernecking effect. Right there, there is a lot of potential bad juju to have to outweigh with irresistible value that has yet to be identified. Likewise, I suspect most people don’t want their cars telling them – or worse still, others – how well they are driving when they are having a hellaciously bad day. And while there may be something to be said for major appliances who send email about needed maintenance, or upgrade offers based on actual usage patterns, this could very quickly become irritating if more than very occasional. At some point it isn’t even a question of privacy so much as of common sense. Of course, many ‘things’ have limited privacy impact, if probably also limited value. My internet-connected toaster or fridge might not provide me all that much value, but is very unlikely to do me any harm either.