The internet & privacy

Photo by Will Lion via Flickr (creative commons)

Lately there has been a lot of angst about internet privacy. This came to a head when Facebook changed some privacy settings which angered some users who believed that they had a right to privacy with stuff they shared on the site. Some folks ever started a movement called over it.

As a person who does internet development, a long time blogger, and someone who “gets the internet,” I just wanted to give you a reality check.

You don’t have privacy, anywhere. If you think you do– you have never read those little contracts you sign, user agreements that you click “yes” to in order to use sites or software, nor read a single privacy policy on nearly every commercial website on the planet.

I don’t want to scare you, but here is a snapshot of the data “we the internet people” collect from you every single day. We don’t do much with this… but we collect this information:

  • Every time you Google something, Google logs that. They know what you search, what you clicked on– Google is, by far, the largest repository of user data anywhere.
  • Every time you make a phone call, your cell phone company knows who you called, where you called from, and how long you talked.
  • If you have a GPS enabled smart phone, your cell phone company knows your exact location any time its turned on whether you are actively using it or not.
  • Your IP and MAC addresses are logged by every website you’ve ever visited. The sites servers know how many times you’ve been there, how long you stayed, and what you looked at. Even free Google Analytics tools can show any website owner this information.
  • Everything you post on Twitter or Facebook (or WordPress or Blogger) belongs to them, not you. Since it is their property they can do whatever they want with it. Every message, every picture, everything you like, everything you direct message.
  • Any time you purchase something from an online retailer, they collect even more information. They know that other stuff about your browsing history, plus they know what you buy, how often you buy, your shipping and billing address, what category of stuff you like to look at, on and on. The only part of the transaction that they can’t really do anything with is your credit card number.
  • If you store documents online, an administrator could access that information, if they wanted or needed to.

If you don’t see https: (the “s” means that the area of the site is certified as secure by someone like VeriSign. Of course, certified and verified as such are two different things.) in the address bar, you shouldn’t have any perception of privacy.

Whatever you do online is somehow public

What is interesting to me about the privacy concerns is that the stuff that people are worried about– is typically happening in real life! Don’t want future employers to see you dancing on a table while intoxicated? Sheesh, don’t blame Facebook for that, blame your drunk self! Don’t want one group of people to know something about you? Don’t talk about it on Twitter!

The irony of the privacy concerns is that people have willingly agreed to the terms of service and have willingly posted content to websites that they now don’t want put in the public.

It makes me gigle. No one ever told you this was private, you just thought it was.

There is no such thing as “internet privacy.

It’s about ethics

As a web developer, you need to know how much value that 99% of website owners put on this data. If a sites privacy policy says they won’t share that information– 99% of organizations won’t. Their reputation is on the line. And there are plenty of watchdogs and lawyers all to happy to create legal grief for those who violate their privacy policies.

Companies may (and most do) use it for their own purposes as outlined in the privacy policy. The funny part is that collecting and learning from this information makes you love most sites instead of loathe them. Most people like it that iTunes or “gets to know their preferences” and make recommendations to you. Statistics show you are much more likely to click on, and buy from, advertisers who target their ads to your preferences. If you are called to appear in court, you’d be happy to know that your cell phone can provide an alibi.

The opposite of compartmentalism

When I was a high school student, youth pastors preached about the ills of compartmentalism all the time. The irony is that todays privacy-free society has those same people crying for just a little compartmentalization!

Fair Warning

My recommendation is not to flee. It’s to live an honest and transparent life. If you live in a way where you have nothing to hide than your level of privacy is rather innocuous.

But the opposite is also true, as well. If you are going places you ought not go or doing things you know are naughty… you are just building up the evidence against yourself. Somewhere someone already knows. And everything you are doing leaves a breadcrumb to your future embarrassment.





4 responses to “The internet & privacy”

  1. Nick Arnold Avatar

    But Adam, how else am I going to share embarrassing photos of myself with my friends? 😉

  2. Tim Schmoyer Avatar

    I’ve always used the web under the assumption that everything I put online is public, so the privacy concerns really aren’t a concern to me.

    I learned a lesson years ago when Dana and I were dating. I posted a blog post about her that I didn’t want her to see soon after we broke up. Unfortunately, she figured out the password and read the whole thing, which was pretty devastating for both of us. Ever since then I’ve learned that everything on the web is potentially public. Passwords are sometimes just a false sense of security. (However, I do use much better passwords now and lots of them!)

  3. adam mclane Avatar

    @tim- that is a good lesson. Obviously, things have worked out between you both. It seems like this is the blunt discussion we need to have with our students, nothing online is private. Nada, zip, zilch.

  4. matt cromwell Avatar

    The reason the Facebook thing is such a problem is because they make it very difficult to change your settings. Plus, they have the HORRIBLE policy of making people be opted-in to things as the default setting. Imagine a credit-card company that sent you a credit card and said “You now have a $5000 line of credit with us unless you opt-out” and then didn’t provide the opt-out form and posted a list of all the people who they had extended $5000 lines of credit to — with your name being listed of course!… imagine the criticism they would receive!

    You are right that there is no privacy on the internet, but there is a difference between trusting a company with your information as a service to you, and a company making it difficult for you to control your own identity in the public sphere.

    And yes Adam… you may use this post however you like and it might embarrass me terribly in a few years when I’m older and wiser!

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