Skip to content

Let’s Face It, We Don’t Really Care About Privacy

2014 December 10
by Greg Satell

It seems that not a week goes by these days that we don’t hear about another massive data breach.  From large-scale retailers like Target to money center banks like JP Morgan, cybercrime runs rampant, violating our privacy and exposing our financial information.

The costs are enormous.  A recent report by the Internet security company McAfee estimates that security breaches cost us over $400 billion globally, but that’s just a small part of the story.  Our data, when combined with advanced algorithms, can reveal our most intimate secrets.

So it is curious, to say the least, that we don’t seem to care very much.  While there was a spike of concern following the massive Edward Snowden leaks, years of warnings from industry groups and government organizations have mostly gone unheeded.  Even now, despite the uproar during the Snowden affair, the fervor has mostly died down. Why is that?

A Brief History Of Privacy

While cybercrime is relatively new, our blasé attitude toward privacy is not.  As Gregory Ferenstein reports in VentureBeat, before the Internet consumers readily chose postcards over letters and party lines over private connections.  For over a century, when we have been given the option of price and convenience over privacy, we invariably choose the former.

In that light, our present lack of interest in our own privacy shouldn’t be so surprising.  We can pay cash, but prefer the convenience of credit cards.  It’s relatively easy to install ad blockers, but very few people do.  We can turn off the cookies in our Internet browsers, but don’t want to continually re-enter our passwords and enjoy having personalized service.

A recent Pew survey reflects these attitudes.  We are thoroughly aware that we are being monitored by governmental organizations, marketers, employers and even social acquaintances, but do little to deter it.  In fact, we actively participate, sharing information on social media and monitoring the online activity of people we know and do business with.

So while we do value privacy, we value other things more.  Value, after all, is a relative term.

The (Not So) Evil Ad Business

Privacy concerns aren’t just for Luddites.  In fact, technologists, who are most fully aware of the dangers, are often the most fervent privacy advocates.  Ethan Zuckerman, for example, recently wrote an article in The Atlantic calling advertising the Internet’s original sin.  Strong words, especially coming from the guy who invented pop-up ads.

Zuckerman explains that he and his colleagues had all the best intentions, that they merely wanted to build useful tools for the benefit of everyone.  Unfortunately, in order to finance their work, they had to produce revenue and that’s what led to the crass and annoying Internet ad culture we have today.

Yet as I argued in a previous post, Zuckerman’s apology is misplaced.  The services of Zuckerman and his colleagues have to be paid for and, in the vast majority of cases, we prefer to pay them through advertising.  All things being equal, marketers will pay more for consumers than consumers will pay for content.

And therein lies the conundrum.  There truly is a dark side to technology, but it seems to be a danger that we’re more than willing to accept.  We enjoy the benefits of mass personalization and that, unfortunately, requires massive monitoring.  On some level, we seem to realize that.

Edward Snowden’s Folly

In the early days after 9/11, many of the world’s newspapers carried an fascinating graphic on their front pages.   It displayed not only the identities of the hijackers, but their hierarchy—who the leaders were, how they were connected and the basic functioning of their command structure.

There were calls for swift retribution.  Zacarias Moussaoui, the 20th hijacker who missed his flight, was arrested and convicted.  The mastermind of the plot, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was captured and now languishes in Guantanamo.  Law enforcement agencies were praised for their efforts, but no one questioned where their chart came from.

In truth, their methods have long been an open secret.  Valdis Krebs published a paper describing how social network analysis was applied to counterterrorism as early as 2002.  I first started writing about the NSA’s methods in 2009 and gave a more detailed analysis last year.  The reality is that anybody who wanted to know what was going on, easily could have.

Nevertheless, when Edward Snowden, a highly paid contractor entrusted with a security clearance, stole thousands of government documents and ran off to Russia, he was praised by many who hailed him as a whistleblower.

The Price of Privacy

We all enjoy privacy.  We like to retreat to our homes, keep conversations among our family and friends and pursue personal interests.  We want our lives to be our own and to determine for ourselves what we want to do with them.  Most legal systems recognize this as not only a preference, but indeed a human right.

Yet we also like to connect with opportunities that the outside world provides.  We want to build credit ratings so that we can purchase more at lower cost.  We like merchants to know our preferences so that they can cater their service to us.  We enthusiastically engage with social media because it lowers the costs of social engagement.

In fact, as Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen point out in The New Digital Age, there is an increasing cost to privacy.  Those who fail to keep up their profiles on LinkedIn and Facebook miss out on professional and social opportunities.  We—and our governments—look upon people without a digital footprint not with admiration, but suspicion.

So privacy is not something we don’t put a whole lot of thought or effort into maintaining, but maybe we should.  We seldom realize the value of something until it’s been lost.

– Greg

11 Responses leave one →
  1. James Dougherty permalink
    December 10, 2014

    GREAT article about the APPLE – IBM partnership. Your philosophy about strategy, mission and culture is right on. All I can say is … the rule breakers – change history. And what does not kill you makes you stronger. Those are my mantras for today. I have an (excellent) management background (c/o 7 years with EMERSON Network Power) and due to the ‘downturn’ in the economy have had to ‘start over’ (again). Pursuing my PMP certification, I struggled for a while till I realized, PMP(BOK) is a ‘guide line’. Projects and life are NOT linear. Thanks again for the breath of fresh air. Its very easy to get lost in todays . . . monotony .. and lack of direction.


  2. December 10, 2014

    Thanks James. Good luck with your certification!

    – Greg

  3. December 10, 2014

    Great insight, Greg. Adding to what you have said, I think many people don’t take the time to understand how their personal information can be used against them and just how much personal information they have put on display for the whole world to see. We mindlessly add details of our lives and those of our loved ones and friends without realising that we should be a little guarded – yes, we have to expose some of our information (as you stated), but its best to keep as much of our personal lives to ourselves, in my view.

  4. December 11, 2014

    Very well written piece. Hadn’t thought about the postcard example before. Well done.

  5. December 11, 2014

    That’s very true. But then again, it’s also amazing how much people share in a crowded restaurant at the top of their voice. So I don’t expect it to change:-)

    – Greg

  6. December 11, 2014

    Thanks Darren. Have a great holiday!

    – Greg

  7. December 12, 2014

    If you recall Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, it was ruled by a supposedly benevolent dictatorship whose subjects have been programmed to enjoy their subjugation through conditioning and the use of a narcotic drug – soma – that is less damaging and more pleasurable than any narcotic known to us. The rulers of “Brave New World” had solved the problem of making people love their servitude.

    We forgot about Huxley’s intuition. We failed to notice that our runaway infatuation with the sleek toys produced by the likes of Apple and Samsung – allied to our apparently insatiable appetite for Facebook, Google and other companies that provide us with “free” services in exchange for the intimate details of our daily lives – might well turn out to be as powerful a narcotic as soma was for the inhabitants of “Brave New World”.

    Surely Dave Eggar’s “The Circle” and its dystopian message has come through – in keeping with Aldous Huxley – that we are willingly to shed privacy in the name of digital connections and convenience.

  8. December 13, 2014

    Thanks for the insight Greg. Have a great 2015!

    – Greg

  9. Ad Gerrits permalink
    December 14, 2014

    Nice refreshing honest observation of how principles aren’t as firm in practice when it comes to applying them. As for the postcard example, it always surprises me how people doubt about digital ways of communicating while traditional analog ways of doing thing are even less secure (f.i. a wet signature).

  10. December 16, 2014

    What if concerns about privacy have subsided because we have changed the way we use social media and other media that is free/advertising supported. For example, sharing only the most innocuous information. Or spending less time with it.

    The partyline analogy is more relevant.

    No one chose a partyline because they had a choice of a private line over a partyline, they paid a premium for a private line the minute it was available.

    Remember CB radios? When mobile phones became available, the CB radio market plummeted.

    The only people who have to believe people prefer advertising to paying for content are people in the business of selling advertising.

    What do the folks who pay for HBO, Showtime, ITunes, Netflix, Pandora, etc. think? I suspect the people who started these businesses were told no one will ever pay for it.

    Katherine Kern

  11. December 16, 2014

    Hi Katherine,

    Thanks for your comment. As I pointed out in an earlier post, it’s not that people aren’t willing to pay for content, as the examples you pointed out show, they are. However, the salient point is that marketers are more willing to pay for consumers than consumers are willing to pay for content.

    So economics favor ad supported models generally, although there are some exceptions and, as you point out, they are important.

    – Greg

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS