This question has been asked many times over the years, as producers of products and technology have both become increasing more interested in things we once kept private. Originally—by which I mean, before social media—our sense of privacy gave us an inherent peace of mind.
In a post-911 world, however, consumers gave up a portion of their privacy in the name of security. 911 was something never before experienced, and a feeling of national loss of security was extremely evident. This, at least in part, resulted in the passing of the Patriot Act, which expanded the government’s ability to research potential terrorist activities. This has been interpreted to include access to homes or businesses without the occupant’s knowledge, if terrorism is suspected; to the ability to search telephone, e-mail and financial records without a court order, and to expand access to law enforcement agencies to business records, including library and financial records. While the law has been revised and changed since then to diminish its reach, parts of it have been renewed through 2019, and led to whistleblower Edward Snowden revealing the extent to which the NSA was collecting phone records.
What did we intend when we willingly gave up some of our privacy? And are we willing to give it up in the interests of marketing—not only national security? That’s the central question we are now facing, as people consider how much information about us, personally, that social media networks have.
Policy aside, in the last ten years, consumers have voluntarily given up more and more of their personally identifiable information in the name of convenience and better experiences. Notice that word “voluntarily.” We gave permission for our data to be accessed and used in exchange for “free” services.
Add to that the ways in which databases of information have been leaked, hacked and accidently published from smartdevices, revealing not just the secrets of individuals, but of organizations and the government. The unauthorized use of our data is what has people now worried, although it’s a bit surprising to see how many people didn’t realize what they had willingly signed away.
The Internet of Things was supposed to be the next giant leap in connected product design, using the power of A.I. and the internet to make products smarter and more receptive to human behavior. Instead, or perhaps in addition to, it has created a network of liabilities that records human behavior. We can credit this to years of companies producing products that prized connectivity without security—putting ability before safety.
What is your privacy worth? A new smartwatch? A virtual assistant? Smart spectacles? Beyond that, what is “privacy” these days, anyway? Are we willing to trade some part of it for personalization, for access to a network, for security?
Consumers were apparently shocked at the level of data that Facebook had been collecting with user approval, and the reaction of many users was to jump ship to another social media network—Instagram—which is also owned and operated by Facebook. Ironic? Or a sign that we have already decided to trade a degree of privacy in return for free networking.
Take it a step further and consider a question from Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress. Sen. Lindsey Graham asked, “Who is your biggest competitor?” Zuckerberg appeared to struggle to name a direct competitor, instead, referencing organizations and companies that overlapped with various services that Facebook provides.
This isn’t about Facebook, although it has become more than a social network—It has become one the major means of global communication. Even if you don’t use Facebook specifically, you come into contact with something Facebook-adjacent, which means it’s really about continuing to want our network of friends, wherever they can be found.
The Facebook data breach simply shines a spotlight on how much we take our own information for granted. It has become a form of secondary currency, and consumers have just begun to realize that they have been giving it away.
Are they getting what they want in return?