The Art of Streetplay

Monday, September 26, 2005

Our Worst Enemy is Ourselves

Our Worst Enemy is Ourselves

Prior to the internet, large scale privacy abuse was all but impossible.  When information was stored in physical documents at home, privacy abuse was simply too expensive to scale.  The same is not true for information stored on the internet.  The density of the internet’s network structure makes it very vulnerable to targeted attacks.  Voluntary or not, the social transition to internet connectivity will inevitably lead to a loss of personal privacy, especially as advertisers find increasingly innovative ways to exploit information about us and our social networks.  Much of what society now considers private will not be so in 20 years because of the internet.  

There are many legitimate arguments which run contrary to this notion.  We value our privacy very highly and have explicitly built it into our Constitution through the Fourth Amendment.  We have regulatory groups in place to enforce society’s privacy.  These groups have spurred on the creation of laws and acts like the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, declaring that email is a private means of communication and should be subject to the same level of privacy as phone calls and letters.  Technology has been created to proactively counter privacy abuse—encryption techniques have become more powerful, and an active market has been built around spam filters.  For each virus that has wreaked havoc on networks of computers, there has been an add-on created to neutralize it.  Speaking more broadly, our free market system itself has eliminated privacy abuse—problems of the past have created a consumer demand for protection, which in turn has led to the creation of electronic security companies to effectively meet this demand.

However, can we honestly say that we don’t want to give up our privacy under the right circumstances?  While it is indeed of value to us, history has shown that we are willing to voluntarily sacrifice privacy for functionality.  Gmail, Facebook, Google Search and VisiblePath are notable recent examples of this.  Gmail is perhaps the best free email service available today, with 2.6GB and a very useful search capability.  However its useful services come at the expense of privacy—Gmail has robots which scan all of our emails so that it can craft targeted advertisements.  Facebook allows students to connect more easily with friends, but asks students to voluntarily disclose personal information like phone numbers, email addresses and interests.  Google’s search engine vastly expands users’ ability to retrieve information.  Users tacitly compensate Google by allowing Google to bombard them with advertisements tailored by prior search history and location.  VisiblePath scours the social networks of employees systematically through their emails and address books to identify potential connections with other corporations.  This improves corporate efficiency at the expense of employee privacy.  137M US citizens, 45% of the current US population, use the internet. 84% of these users regularly use search engines like Google, and 92.5% regularly use email services like Gmail.  These percentages will inevitably continue to grow, making it all the more profitable for companies and advertisers to innovate and expand their offerings.  Are we going to enact regulations we don’t want to enact?  Is the free market system going to create products that respect user privacy but have no consumer demand?  Our problem, if it is even valid to call it one, is that we want to give up our privacy.  


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