Monday, 21 October 2013

Why Online Privacy Matters

Last week I posted here on why one can no longer take online anonymity for granted anymore, mentioning that this lack of anonymity is one of the core reasons you will not find me using the services of Facebook and why I do my best to minimise my footprint with Google. I did not, however, address the even bigger question: why do I care so much about my online privacy?
This question has often been posed to me. You are not a spy nor a criminal, I am [rightfully] told, so why shouldn’t you use Google even when you know there is a price to pay in privacy?
I will not attempt to provide a philosophical answer to this question; I will leave that to esteemed colleagues such as Rick Falkvinge. I will, however, point out this “nothing to fear, nothing to hide” approach is something no one would accept, not even the people who have adopted it as their mantra. As in, call me to come and install a webcam at your toilet if you disagree with me; somehow, I doubt you would. We all know exactly what takes place at everyone’s toilets, yet we all prefer to leave these matters between us and our toilet paper roll. What I’m trying to say is that at our core we all value privacy, it’s just the some of us value it more than the rest. Or perhaps some of us are more aware of its value than the rest.
At the much more down to earth level, I have decided that I would like to be the arbiter of what I would like to keep private and what I would like to share. This is exactly why I choose my preferred social media platforms: both this blog and my Twitter account allow me full control over the information I would like to make public. That said, it is clear Twitter works behind the scenes to try and monetise me, so who knows what things would be like in the near future; Twitter already makes public too much information concerning the people I like to associate myself with. Still, relatively speaking, I am still in control.
Being in control is important because of the rather fickle way in which identity is established in Australia. One does not need to know much about me in order to do many things on my behalf, such as apply for credit cards or health insurance. The same applies to tampering with my existing financials and health arrangements. Not that I am calling for more rigid identification measures, such as national ID cards to be introduced; I do not think we can trust the state (and by now we know Australia is in full cooperation with the NSA when it comes to tracking its citizens), nor do I think these measures offer any safety improvements. On the contrary.
This is why I tend to give away false details whenever someone who has no business knowing asks me for information that's none of their business. And I can tell you that over the past few years I have been getting many more birthday greetings on my false birthdays than I do on my genuine one. It is quite charming to feel so loved all year long, though; I warmly recommend the habit.
At the even more down to earth level, keeping my privates private can have measurable impact on my wallet. Check out this research, showing how information collected on us through seemingly innocent means can have a bite when we are identified for who we really are from “annonymised” data.
In this particular case, the information we provide slap us in the face when it comes to paying for our car insurance. One can argue, and not without reason, that determining car insurance fees as per one’s actual driving performance is much fairer than the current scheme. However, consider the situation in Australia, where supermarket (and pokies) giant Woolworths has now positioned itself in big data and insurance, too. Woolworths have recently announced that their data analysis shows people who buy red meat and milk at the supermarket tend to be more reliable drivers (see here). Where would that leave those of us who are lactose intolerant?
It is just a matter of time before big data collected on us starts slapping us with the whip of financial hits. And because no one can argue with hard facts, such as Woolworths’, legislation allowing companies to do so will be introduced with the most minimal of lobbying efforts. And what would happen then?
Until we get to that point, though, I would like to be the one controlling what bits of personal information about me are out there and what’s safely with me. It's getting harder all the time for me to be able to do so; on the comforting side, awareness is the first step in the right direction. In a world where we don't know where the next blow would come from, but we know with absolute certainty we will get blown, that is the only rational option.


Photo by hobvias sudoneighm, Creative Commons license

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