Monday, November 26, 2012

From data privacy to digital profiling - the new age of the Net

For the past couple of days this viral Facebook privacy hoax was circulating on my FB network. It is not a virus and did not cause any harm, but it led me to wonder why people get so wound up about their privacy in social media.More than two years ago, I said that social networking and privacy are by very definition contradictory terms. Media and privacy are by definition contradictory terms. If you gave an interview in mass media (TV, radio or newspaper) you would be very careful about what you say. You certainly would not dream of demanding that the news channel or TV channel expunge all copies of the interview and return all recorded matter to you because it's your property. It helps to think of social media the same way. 

What you say in the public domain, will stay in the public domain. No matter how many privacy controls you are given, you must assume that anyone would be able to see your information, now, later on, in perpetuity. Armed with this knowledge, it's up to us to use social media responsibly and leverage it for our own benefit. In my own experience, people who have a skill, passion or hobby and share it on social media, benefit hugely from building networks and influence. People who use social media as a tool to discover and re-connect with family, old friends and colleagues benefit hugely. People who log in to simply share and consume shared content, benefit hugely and the 1 billion fanbase of Facebook testifies that it is relevant for all these needs. For anything more private, controversial or titillating, there is email, phone, skype etc. which are better suited for expressing views to smaller personalised groups. All of these can also be tracked and read under certain conditions, but that subject is outside the scope of this post.

Aside from the question of privacy, I believe data transparency  is important. You should be able to see what information is held about you, and understand clearly how the information is used. Our time would be better spent in protecting ourselves from data misuse, than trying to erase our data from the web.

As someone said about the internet 'if you don't pay to use it, then you are the product'. Nothing demonstrates this better than Google. And it frankly surprises me that people get all hot and bothered about facebook data when Google has way more data on you than facebook ever will.
If you use gmail, search, sign into a chrome browser, use Android, Maps and the Play Store, use YouTube or any other Google product, then this information can be consolidated across products and platforms. As you know, Google uses this information to target paid advertising/ search. 

And it's scary to think how much Google knows about us. On a social media site, what we put up is what we voluntarily and consciously choose to share. What we search for, may be things that we would never publicly share. People google to diagnose if they have HIV, to learn how to kiss, to diagnose if they have UTI, to find cures for bad breath - and much more which they would NEVER talk about even to close family, let alone friends. Yes, it is scary. 

Google's data policy is however, is way more transparent and easy to understand. Through your Google Account Dashboard, you can see how much data they have on you, and Google guides you through ways to customise (not disable) the ads that they will show you. You come away from the experience feeling reassured, if not in control of your data. To do Facebook justice, I think they are trying to move towards transparency but battling with the legal and business implications as well as the complicated, bafflingly rich data constructs on the site. They have not even figured how to fully monetise it yet! I would give them time to get there. Google has had a head start. I am sure Facebook will do what it takes to reassure its huge user base on data privacy.

As big data becomes more compelling, we can expect tracking of data and people on the internet to grow. As the 'internet of things' (objects which connect to the net to transmit data) grows, your fridge, car, television and lights will be transmitting information to you, and about you. Yes, there will be concerns and worries. But the tracking will not stop. Soon, it  will not be about deleting a facebook account or a google account to get your privacy back. 

It may be about deleting yourself from the internet.  And I wonder at that point how many of us would have the will or courage to do that. 

It's simpler to breathe, and accept data collection and tracking as part of life. It's more important to ensure that steps are taken to protect and respect the data and keep it from unauthorised people. And it's crucial to treat your online presence, as though you are on a public stage. No one can protect you, as well as you can protect yourself.