What Does it Mean to Own Our Private Information?
You probably know that your personal information is collected, used, and sold by advertisers on the web. You understand that this is why you repeatedly see the same ad, which demonstrates Every One knows you want to buy Fox Head’s new Rampage Pro Carbon bike. If you are like most people, you aren’t really concerned about what Every One knows about you. You only get concerned when someone (usually a journalist) points out that you don’t control or understand the information being collected. Not so much concerned, as kind of creeped out.
That’s the feeling the journalist was aiming for, because it gets your attention.
I’d like to focus your attention on this: not much of the information advertisers use is personal, or owned by you, or private.
1: Your information isn’t personal
What is personal information? Certainly, data that might be on your passport or bank records. What about the mouseclick that brought you here, or the string of mouseclicks that got you here? Is that personal? How about the amount of time the device you are using spent on a particular web page? The general category that encompasses that page (eg, mountain bikes)? What about the fact that you (or someone at that IP address) are interested in mountain bikes in general, or the Rampage Pro Carbon in particular? This is not what I think of as personal information.
2: You don’t own your information
So who owns this information? Not you, in my opinion. If Annie Liebowitz takes a picture of you clicking your mouse, I don’t think you will find anyone who says, oh sure, you own the photo. If you aren’t a celebrity, Annie doesn’t even need your permission to exhibit the photo. So, if a web site records your mouse click, how does that record belong to you?
3: Your privacy is compromised by living
Now we come to privacy. If you live in the world, you have compromised your privacy. You go outdoors, people see you. You buy something, you have to identify yourself (either at point of sale, or to a cash dispenser). You make a phone call, AT&T knows where you are. We’re all accustomed to this. We are used to controlling how much of our private self we share. We cover ourselves with clothing, give vague answers to nosy questions, close our curtains.
Online tracking of our behavior compromises our privacy in unfamiliar ways. It isn’t strangers seeing you in the bike store, it is strangers never forgetting that you were in the bike store. And then connecting that piece of information with lots of other online actions. And sharing that information with Every One. As long as the “you” in this picture is still “some anonymous guy who likes bikes,” your privacy is intact. No matter how many places you see the ad for the Rampage Pro Carbon, or helmets, or bike shorts.
When advertisers manage to connect all of that activity to you, your home address, your credit card, or your email – now your privacy is compromised in a new way. It’s as if after living essentially anonymously in Manhatten, you move to Montague, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Within a few short days, thousands of strangers know where you came from, why you came, how long you’ll stay, what you’ll be doing, what car you drive, who you live with, the accident you had this morning, and where you go for breakfast. Advertisers are delivering all of us to small town life, and we have as much control of our information as any small town resident might expect (none). Advertisers earn money with our information: gossips earn attention and, if they are really good at it, cake and coffee.
Advertisers are quick to claim the benefits of this arrangement. They pay for a lot of content we love. And perhaps the attention they shower on us is also a benefit. How awful if no one ever talked about me when I left the room – how insignificant I’d be. I get thousands of junk emails daily: how central I am to the Internet economy! Frankly, no one is going to admit that advertiser attention is better than no attention.
Is it a good deal? We all take the deal because it is pretty much the only deal. How much would you give up to move your digital self back to the big city? Would you click on a button on every site you entered? Clear your cookies daily? Manage software that spoofed your device address? Pay to use a gmail replacement? Me, I’m getting very accustomed to digital small town life.