We all know that the Internet and digital development has propelled us into a new era. The particular area of interest and much scrutiny over many years is the threat on privacy posed by Internet services such as search engines and social media. This threat is taken even further with development of facial recognition technologies in smart TVs and Google’s all-seeing eye in the Google Glass project. This leaves us with this dilemma: to sacrifice our personal information in exchange for free digital services.
The majority of revenue for search and social media companies are from advertising. We all know it is free to search on Google, Bing or Yahoo and to sign up on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest. And this is great. Who can complain about getting free stuff! The catch is advertising. Obviously they must make their money somehow. And they do make billions ($36bn in the US in 2012 to be precise) by making your personal, disclosed information available to advertisers, as the premise for effective advertising is information. Google makes 95% of their revenue from advertising.
The ecology of personal information
Advertising is ingrained to the core of Internet services. It has found a prime seat in this new ecological system of commerce. The circle goes something like this:
- You get a free service in exchange for personal information (e.g. Facebook)
- The service provider (e.g. Facebook) offers advertisers a platform to reach a specific audience according the information you yourself have disclosed, in exchange for money
- The advertiser gets an efficient channel to reach you directly with advertising they think is relevant to you, with the hope that you will buy their product
Everyone gets something and everyone’s happy. You get a free service, the provider gets cash, and the advertiser gets you.
We choose to give up privacy
A recent survey conducted by the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future and Bovitz Inc. showev that while 70% of Millennials (18-34 year olds) said that “No one should ever be allowed to have access to my personal data or web behaviour”, they were the most willing to exchange personal information for something in return.
You can go all 1984 and Big Brother about this, fearing the consequence of every letter you type into a box on the web. Or you can be totally blasé about what you disclose online. Which is worse? The latter is utterly careless, but the prior is equally paranoid. While some have said that privacy is dead, others claim that it is merely evolving.
Social media privacy has been discussed to infinity, and rightfully so. I will therefore not say so much about that except recommend that you watch this video to get some perspective.
Search engines are cheekier as when you put in a search query that information is stored with or without your knowledge. And when you visit a website with a Google Adwords box, the ad you see is tailored to you according to where you are, what websites you visit (with the help of cookies) and type of stuff you search for. If you’re extremely paranoid, the question to ponder is this: how will Google coerce me into joining their army when they take over the world?
The all-seeing eye
The next threat to privacy is face recognition and the ubiquity of Google Glass and Smart TVs. A lot of research is currently done on face recognition in smart TVs and this function is already available in smart TVs rolled out by Samsung. The idea is great. Rather than typing in your login information the TV recognises your face and logs you into your respective account.
But imagine the potential for the advertising industry here. From having one or a few national networks to having segmented cable TV, advertisers have since the 1980s-1990s been able to target more specific TV audiences for a lesser price. Imagine if that segmentation could now be made not only from the channel, program or time of day, but from who is sitting in the living room (or wherever your TV is). There goes that privacy.
If a child sits in front of the TV, the TV will notice and show only children friendly ads and perhaps toy ads. If a bunch of guys are in the room what would they care about seeing L’Oreal’s “Because you’re worth it”? If the whole family is there an idyllic family holiday may be the perfect ad to show. If you are logged in to an account on your TV, it can also store what programs you like watching and when you typically watching TV.
Facedeals is another technology that takes face recognition to local businesses. You register your face with an account, and as you enter a shop or club a camera in the shop recognises your face and instantly texts an offer to your smartphone from this shop. The idea is very similar to location services already existing on smartphones but it has potential for being a pretty scary surveillance tool. You’re never hidden.
I guess I don’t need to say much more about Google Glass. You will carry the camera on yourself. Everything you see could be recorded and logged. The people you hang out with, the places you go to, the stuff that you buy. This is, of course, a worst-case scenario. I am very fascinated by the product, and hate being dubious about everything. But like in the video above, perspective and knowing what you do is necessary.
Obsolete or evolving?
The question that remains is whether privacy is an obsolete concept or if it is merely changing. Personally, some stuff I don’t mind posting on Facebook and other stuff I do mind. And when I search on Google, the worst thing that can happen is that I see more relevant ads as a consequence. Perhaps the boundary for what is private has merely shifted. However, when creating Facebook Mark Zuckerberg envisioned a world where privacy was redundant. Is it right to call this evolution or is devolving privacy the more correct phrase with boundaries shifting further and further towards zero?
How far are you willing to go in making personal information available in exchange for free digital services, coupons, vouchers or whatever? And do you think privacy is a dying race? Please share with us below.