You Don’t Care About Privacy

Feb 20, 2012

Moral outrage over privacy, tracking and where exactly our personal details end up has been very much in fashion in recent weeks, with Google, app makers and others variously accused of taking advantage of us gullible, innocent users. Congress, the FTC, privacy watchdogs and journalists are each competing to see who can foam most dramatically at the mouth; developers and companies, meanwhile, each struggle to raise the bar when it comes to groveling, heartfelt apologies. Yet few are talking about the root causes of the privacy morass: ignorance, arrogance and entitlement.

[Image credit: goonflower]

Ironically, many of Google's most recent problems stemmed from the search company's attempts to make privacy agreements more approachable. The firm's profligate approach to public betas had left it operating eighty, ninety different products, each of which had brought its own impenetrable policy. Google moved to harmonize them, or at least the majority, into a single document, and in doing so brought some of the less palatable elements into the light.

Privacy-minded folk have perhaps taken most umbrage at the liberties Google takes in juggling your information between its services. Google's argument is that in doing so it can create wonderful, intuitive mashups of data - take location and weather and calendar and contacts and suggest you take an umbrella for your meeting with Chad this afternoon, and incidentally no need to rush as Chad is stuck in traffic anyway - and, incidentally, that those liberties have always been in place, simply spread across multiple documents.

The argument against it is that all of a sudden our digital lives are the data plaything of a huge firm, the only reassurances about which we have are its "Don't be evil" unofficial motto and the legal cudgel of the FTC, European Commission and a few other fine-imposing agencies. Our outrage is, to some extent, that of the self-entitled, ignorant child: desperate to believe we are individually important enough that Google makes special effort to dig through our digital keepsakes, too lazy and ill-understanding to read and unravel the legalese of the privacy policies we expect to be loaded in our favor.

[aquote]If we're not willing to look after ourselves, should we expect others to?[/aquote]

We want Google's free products, Path's easy sense of community; we seethe when one service won't talk to another without umpteen hoops to jump through. Yes, uploading our address book willy-nilly is foolish practice, but let's not forget that the vast majority of apps that took a heavy-handed approach to how they shuttled our contacts off to its servers, also warned that just that could take place. We simply didn't read it; we didn't even try. Most of us hit "Agree" on the terms-of-service as quickly as possible, eager to get past the wrapping and into the meat of the service itself. If we're not willing to look after ourselves, should we expect others to?

Everything we do - and not just online - is a balance of privacy and practicality. Daily life is a bartering of information in return for convenience. It's right and proper that government agencies and public advocates should stand up to companies that take a profligate approach to our personal data: they may not listen to our Twitter campaign, but they'll surely pay attention to a multi-million dollar penalty. Yet Congress' Bi-Partisan Privacy caucus, the cavalcade of well-meaning watchdogs, all run the risk of teaching us that privacy is something that will be legislated for us, operated - like traffic light management or the electricity grid - at a distance: something that we need not concern ourselves about and, most dangerously, could not hope to individually understand.

We need decipherable privacy policies, not scapegoating; a sense of personal responsibility for the safety of our own data, rather than grandstanding and public finger-pointing after the event. Problem is, we've demonstrated ourselves very willing to divorce ourselves of responsibility, and all too eager to wail like indignant banshees when we're told someone has ended up taking the liberties we've left all the doors open to. How can we expect the companies whose services we use - so often demand for free, no less - to safeguard us, when we resolutely refuse to do so ourselves?

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