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The price of privacy

Apr 05 2011 11:51
Simon Dingle
ANY thinking person knows that they are sacrificing something by allowing Facebook, Google and other online services access to their private information.

I think most of us generally view the cost of this loss in relation to the benefits of the "free" service we receive and see it as worthwhile. Facebook puts me in touch with long-lost friends and family and gets some of my private information in return.
But is it really that simple? And what are the broader implications of this privacy trade-off?

The argument extends to companies like Apple that sell us devices, but retain control over what we are able to do with those devices and the selection of content that can be consumed with them. Are the benefits of this enough to outweigh the cost of our will? And what exactly are those costs?

One of the leading thinkers in this space is science fiction author and self-proclaimed "internet activist" Cory Doctorow.

I was lucky enough to meet with Doctorow in 2008 and discuss online privacy with him when Facebook was in its infancy. At the time he had stopped using Apple computers because of a worrying trend of control that he sensed from the company.

Now, in 2011, he is more outspoken than ever. Doctorow gave a presentation at the TEDx event in London last week and likened the effect of Facebook on its users to that of a Skinner box that is used to teach behaviour to animals.

In a Skinner box rats, for example, can be taught to push a pedal that releases food pellets into the enclosure. The trick is to make sure that they don't get a pellet every time, however, as this will make them frantically push the pedal with food randomly being dispensed the more they push.

Likewise, says Doctorow, Facebook trains us to give away bits of our privacy with the sporadic rewards of likes and comments from friends. It is a training ground for devaluing privacy and represents a worrying trend, according to him.

A recent web cartoon featured a picture of WikiLeaks founders Julian Assange with the caption "I give private information on corporations to you for free, and I'm the villain" alongside a picture of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg with "I give your private information to corporations for money, and I'm Time's Man of the Year!"

Of course, the corporations in question did not disclose their information to Assange via a misleading end user licence agreement, giving him permission to spread it around.

Facebook users agree to hand over their information, even if most of them don't know this because they don't bother to read the agreement they are inadvertently signing by setting up a Facebook account.

It's easy to write off views such as Doctorow's as extremist and exaggerated - but the more I think about it, the more I see his point. Kids are growing up in a world where they regard their privacy as worthless, while companies farm their private information to sell them products more effectively.

The capitalist in me says: bring it on! Don't you want advertising to target you more accurately?

Doesn't it make sense to live in a world where products are better designed through companies understanding of you as an individual? Surely Apple is a good enough curator of content to make the right decisions for me and save me the effort?

Yes, yes and yes. But the bigger question is – at what cost? And one of the biggest prices being paid is in perception of control. This is my theory, although I think Doctorow would agree.

As a parent I want my children to grow up in a world that can be rearranged to their liking and where their decisions are untainted by corporate agendas. I want them to know that most "rules" are really just perceptions of a control that doesn't exist.

Outside actually breaking the law, I want them to push the boundaries and question the way things are. All the greatest minds in history, whether Einstein or Nelson Mandela, brought real change through refusing to accept the status quo and questioning the "rules" imposed on them by others who thought they knew better because their views were shared.

Facebook and similar services teach us that someone else is in charge. That we are not able to make our own decisions and are better off trusting them.

We are encouraged to devalue our individuality through disclosure of private information – and whether this is an actual intention or merely a side-effect of an honest stab at making profit doesn't matter. It still sucks.

So what do we teach our children about their privacy and behaviour online? Doctorow advises raising renegades. He says we should be teaching our children to fill in every online form they encounter with gobbledygook so that the information is misleading.

Teach them to jailbreak the devices they buy so that they are put in control of their software and content instead of a big company like Apple. They must learn that when you acquire something it is yours and no one else – not even the company that produced it – should be able to tell you what to do with it.

In short, to lend from a piece Doctorow wrote about the Apple iPad, teach them that the world is theirs to take apart and put together again to their liking.

I can't disagree. And my kids are going to be a nightmare for the Apples and Facebooks of the world if I have anything to do with it.

 - Fin24



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