Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Information: The Cost of Access and Convenience

-- By EstherLukman - 06 Mar 2015

The Two-Way Highway

The Internet is often nicknamed the world’s “information highway”. As the Internet has grown faster and more accessible- by smartphones, by tablets, by laptops, by personal Wi-Fi hotspots, etc., it has fused itself with the backbone of our daily behaviors.

On any given day, many of us will use it to stay current on whatever segment of news most interests us, to navigate ourselves, to find answers, to purchase goods and services, to entertain ourselves, to chart our schedules, and of course, to communicate. The swelling rapidity and frequency with which we consume Internet-based services has increased the ease of forgetting that the Internet is a two-way highway; that, the price of access to these Internet-based services is our private information.

Information Mining

Prior to installation of any phone/tablet application, the user is asked to provide a series of permissions to their digital information vaults. You want to download an app that helps you make restaurant reservations without having to pick up the phone and call? Fork over access to your phone contact database, your email contact database, your calendar, your social media networks, and your real-time location. Seems fair enough. Because regardless of whether or not the amount of access requested feels proportionate to the service rendered, at least the request for information was overt and easy to reject. The problem is only a fraction of the information collected from our online behaviors follow express grants of access.

When you engage in an in-person conversation, your expected audience typically consists of invited parties (and maybe nosy third-party listeners within earshot). Until Snowden proved otherwise, many of us were under the impression, or perhaps, without concrete contravening evidence, chose to believe, that the above even applied to phone calls.

Audience control on the Internet differs immensely. Let’s take e-mails. Generally, we send e-mails expecting their contents to reach the parties addressed in the “To”, “CC”, and/or “BCC” lines. We may even factor in the possibility that some third-party might grab a glimpse. But the companies providing the e-mail services to both the sender and each addressed party? It seems unlikely that very many of us would take no issue with postal services opening, transcribing, and storing said copies of our mail. Yet, the bulk of e-mail senders avoid precautionary measures that might keep the likes of Google, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc. from accumulating a database of searchable transcripts of our private correspondences.

And that’s just talk. As in life outside the digital world, at least some of our actions on the Internet constitute speech. That is to say, that at least some of our actions on the Internet betray private information about our preferences and opinions, which in turn are collected and aggregated into companies’ market research data.

Browsing history reveals critical data about users’ viewing preferences. The seemingly innocent act of online shopping betrays, among other things, answers to the following: when, why, and how one choses to purchase certain items, what links successfully convert to click-throughs and purchases, and how the purchasing decision was arrived at. And location information can be pulled explicitly from social media updates or culled implicitly as a result of authorizing applications to access one’s mobile device’s location services. Even inaction can be information-laden. The clicks you didn’t make, the products you didn’t purchase, the content you didn’t chose to propagate, etc. These inactions too contribute data about a user’s decision-making process.

Privacy v. Convenience

So why, with all this considered, do we continue to consume the Internet as we do? When so many of us would consider privacy a right worth protecting, why are we willing to not only surrender such protection on the Internet but even willfully turn a blind eye to the wealth of information mining happening without our express permission?

One answer: the convenience tradeoff. When the benefits of accessing and participating in Internet-based services are so great, privacy for privacy’s sake pales as a priority. We accept that Gmail collates searchable archives of our correspondences, because that means we have access to searchable archives of our past correspondences. We accept that Amazon tracks how we interact with its product offerings, because they come back to us with better suggested purchases. We accept that Google Maps, Uber, and Yelp all track our location, because it makes it that much easier for them to help help ourselves.

So valuable is the information gathered from user’s Internet activities that the information alone is a commercial asset. For example, Birchbox, a subscription service that sends users monthly bundles of beauty, makeup, and fragrance samples and allows users to easily buy full-sized products through their website, serves as a crucial middleman for the beauty, makeup, and fragrance industries. Industry giants vie to have their samples distributed through Birchbox, because through Birchbox, they’re able to effectively test their products on a targeted focus group.

For convenience, the fact that our micro-behaviors are observed and converted into statistics that can be manipulated and utilized to better achieve companies’ commercial goals becomes more palatable. Because each additional Internet-based service we consume allows us to outsource just that much more of the tasks we’d rather outsource, we accept that the cost of access and convenience is our private information. But perhaps it shouldn’t be.

Marketing plans have become so intelligent we can’t always tell when something is being sold to us. By surrendering volumes of information about ourselves, we are surrendering to companies the means to most effectively shape our demands. What we chose to buy, what we chose to read, and eventually, what we chose to think and how we chose to feel. The leap from protecting our privacy on the Internet to protecting freedom of choice may seem gargantuan, but if all decisions stem from a kernel of an idea, perhaps it is worth fighting to ensure that said kernels are not wholly provided for us by profit-seekers.


Webs Webs

r5 - 26 Jun 2015 - 19:50:51 - MarkDrake
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