Internet Changed the Concept of Privacy

Before explaining how the concept of privacy has changed with Internet, I’ll first explain privacy in the before time.

Before Generalized Internet

… privacy was pretty straightforward: if you were alone in your room, door and curtains closed, you could expect reasonably that nobody was watching you. What you did in your room would be considered private.

Consider putting someone in your bedroom with you. First you would be quite astonished to find a complete stranger near your bed, then if that person were to following you around and writting down everything you did and everything you said, you’d have a hard time to consider your room private anymore. Most likely you’d want to take this stranger notepad, scrap it, and kick the stranger out of your house. But the very first side effect of not being private anymore is you censoring—or filtering—yourself: your behavior change under scrutinity.

On Modern Internet

Things are a lot more difficult. Actually in my opinion the comparison with the before time isn’t even possible. We are not talking about one human stranger in your room but a whole team of robots. In addition they can take down notes at light-speed, cross-find information almost as fast and their notepad are copied over and over all over the world (and thus impossible to delete). Robots don’t even have to sleep and you can’t kick them1!

Interestingly, while way more intrusive than our stranger in the bedroom, most people still believe to be private with their electronic device. Even amongst those who know about data collection, a (fortunatly decreasing) majority decides to not accept the reality of their every stoke (or lack of!) being scrutinized in real time.

This is actually a feature: lack of privacy makes you change your behavior (as we saw above) and does not make you feel good (who likes the persistent idea of being watch?). Therefore websites and apps go to great length to hide away the constant data collection and what can only be described as surveillance.

What it Means for Privacy

In this note I’m not going to write about the “I don’t care about privacy because I have nothing to hide” rabbit hole; this is a topic for another day (?cf “I’ve Got Nothing to Hide” and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy).

What I want to focus instead is on how the idea of privacy changed.

The way we should think about privacy has come from “fragments of information here and there that unrelated people knows about me” to a “holistic and contextual, daily updated profile of you and your whole circles of friends and family”. It’s a whole new (and hard to grasp) scale.

For an example of “fragments of information”, let’s imagine a random person going to the store a few decades ago. The clerk may remember that person favorite brand of chocolate and make sure it is in stock each time he or she visits. There is a security camera at each exit. There may even be a client fidelity program.

This system (still available in a lot of store) has data retention, don’t get me wrong, but:

  • It has an expiration date (physical human memory of your favorite clerk) and data retention policy for the tapes of the security footages
  • Almost no context; store does not know your surroundings or what else you buy where and with whom
  • Shopping habits is limited to whatever your fidelity card retains, which isn’t probably much outside the store

Compare this to the kind of tracking used nowadays (using Google as an example):

  • You haven’t even step a foot in the store but Google knows you’ve been checking recipe online and that you may be interested in buying ingredients
  • You’ve looked up direction (or traffic) to the store. You’ve still not step a foot in the store but GPS gives away each and every stop you make and for how long to Google
  • In some case, paying with credit card/cashless gives away content of your basket (your store account/fidelity program may also be linked to your Google account)
  • It also knows every other store you’ve been and every other purchase you’ve made
  • It knows your interest (regretting googling stuff yet?)
  • It knows your friends and family
  • It knows your email…

I can go on and on but the point is not to make an exhaustive list. The point is the scale is a magnitude different than what we were used to and maybe we should stop, or slow down a bit and think about it for a little bit. Because No, We Cannot Learn to Live with this Privacy Paradigm# and because it’s not just about “me” or “you” anymore. It’s about “us”.

You may not care (it’s your right) but maybe a family member does, and right now their right are being trumped because their surrounding are giving away private data (consciously or not) without any way for the concerned family member to opt out.

Data collection may have its advantage: a timely sale for a product you were eyeing for some times, a context aware user experience tomake you more productive2 etc.

Still, more and more people—like me—finds this ever watching robots eyes insufferable and the trade off not worth it. We try to limit the data they can access to what we consent to give (or for more private people, to a minimum). My devices are like my bedroom: you may know what I am doing in it, it does not mean I want you to take a look at it.

  1. You could, but it hurts, trust me.

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  2. Although to be honest it rarely works as well as in the commercial.

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