Sunday, July 15, 2012

Internet Privacy Is Dead

I have spent a great deal of time and energy blogging about Internet privacy. This conversation - if there even is one anymore - has become extremely one-sided.  The controversy coming from the side of Internet content providers, marketing professionals, and device manufacturers has met with little or no argument from Internet users. We let cookies and other targeting mechanisms reside on our computers and now also permit other kinds of tracking of our personal profiles to be done by social media as well as eCommerce sites. 

The common characteristic among these cybernetic strategies is that they all are free.  That's right for free.  My guess is that if we paid for them, we would be much more careful about our privacy rights.  My other guess is that most of us don't understand what is going on, or really care for that matter.

Rewind the tape to the late 1940s, a few years after David Sarnoff and others launched their revolutionary medium, television.  The early networks realized that no one would have any interest in purchasing a television set - if only because they wouldn't understand it or its purpose.  Culturally, most folks went to the movies on weekends for media entertainment or listened to the radio in their cars, office, or homes.  They weren't yet interested in being entertained on week nights or - perish the thought - during the day by the captivating medium of TV.  In civilized communities, their daylight hours were spent going to work or school or caring for their children.  Life was not very complicated.  Then, the services were mostly free or supported by advertising.  The theater movies charged admission, but it was usually nominal.

But when the TV networks discovered that they could provide free content to audiences by selling advertising to the likes of Proctor and Gamble or Lever Brothers, soap operas were born and daytime content began to attract attention.  The rest is obviously history as another fifty years passed and technology as we know it today evolved.

What does any of this history have to do with privacy?  First, in the past our access to entertainment was controlled physically by a turn-style, ticket booth, or off-on switch.  When we wanted entertainment or information content, we turned it on.  When we didn't we turned it off. Today, all this has changed.  We can get physical privacy by locking our doors or living in a gated community.  We can password protect our computers or smartphones and build secure tunnels (VPNs) into our desktop or laptop connections so that our data cannot be collected or viewed by others.  But at the end of the day, our homes and offices still can be photographed and located by satellite cameras and our computers or mobile devices can be located and tracked every time we turn them on.  And there is little we can do to change this.  Similarly, when we go out in public our faces can be photographed, mapped, or identified for "security" purposes.

Yes, we encrypt our logins and passwords.  We Captcha code registrations.  We secure Internet connections with certificates.  We protect end-point devices like thumb drives, access points, and back-up locations.  But none of these methods truly protects our privacy.  And despite occasional security breaches or unlawful intrusions, little if any legislation has been passed to improve the privacy outlook.

The truth is that currently it is not in our best interests to be private, especially with Internet activity.  We want to be seen and "followed" by our BFFs and other contacts.  To keep us connected, Internet content providers and advertisers know how to satisfy our desire for innovation, our innate curiosity, our vanity, and our willingness to trust the friendliness of the net.  The why is left to social scientists, but they know:  what we want, what works, and what doesn't.  This includes our prurient desires as well.

As long as what we view on our screens and interact with is appealing to us, then we will continue to visit the web without concern about our privacy or whether it might be in our better interests to want it.

The only relief in sight will probably come from the likes of Apple, Google, and Amazon who already know how to charge us for goods and services and who might just add value to their services by finding new ways to protect our privacy and identity.  If we could connect to services like theirs anonymously and THEN authenticate, that would give us some choices that we don't currently have.  But that would require that we make some noise as consumers about the current lack of real privacy.

Check out our Internet Privacy Forum.
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