I am not naïve enough to think that we will ever be able to get rid of tracking and privacy concerns because we have come to expect some things like our broadcast TV, discounts at merchants, and a lot of Internet content for free. In most cases we are either directly or indirectly giving up information about ourselves in order to get what we see as a benefit. In the case of a supermarket discount program we give up our name, address, phone number, and possibly other information that can then be combined with census data or other data from databases to give the retailer an idea of our income and possible spending habits. Over time by tracking what we actually purchase we give them a very detailed account of what we buy. For broadcast TV there are other ways that we give up some information like the Neilsen ratings where our viewing habits are surmised based on a set of people willing to give more detailed information.
I remember attending the Software Developers West (SD West) conference in 1997. I attended a session there where the speaker said that privacy and privacy concerns were a relatively new invention. He used “Little House on the Prairie” as an example. In the small town scenario if I were to go in and buy a necklace at the only local store and then the store owner saw someone other than my wife wearing the necklace he would know I had given it to her. There was no privacy and no expectation of privacy. Having grown up in a small town I can attest that this is still the status quo for a lot of people. Certainly all of the “stupid boy” things that I did growing up are known and remembered by many people there. The reason that nobody got too uptight about knowing what was going on was that except for a few people we all realized that we were human and cut each other a lot of slack. Also the social norm seemed to be that telling too many of your neighbor’s secrets got you branded a gossip and nobody wanted that. I don’t know but I would be willing to bet that if you were to travel back in time and ask people then about privacy if they had thought about it at all it would probably come up in the context of the Constitution, not having your mail read, or illegal search and seizure of property.
Now it seems that with many people living in large, urban environments we have come to expect a certain level of privacy. I know that I enjoy some benefits from having moved away from the same people that I went to school with. I am not reminded on a daily basis about the fights, crushes, and other activities of junior high and high school. At the same time I also try to self sensor myself to make sure that I am not creating a new persona that would have negative items associated with it. I am careful about what I post on the Internet and especially on sites that are designed for sharing like Facebook and LinkedIn and this blog. These social media sites are the antithesis of privacy as they encourage us to share many details including our most intimate thoughts.
One of the privacy related things that I have been interested in over the years is watching how my information has spread across different marketing firms. My name was misspelled in a particular database. I started getting mail with that misspelling from different companies. Since I do not use that misspelling and have never responded back to any mailings or calls with that name (I tell the telemarketers that nobody with that name lives here) I saw its use go way up and then drop off in a long tail slide into oblivion.
I don’t know that there is an easy solution to this problem but here is what I would like to see several things to “protect my privacy”.
- I would like an explicit policy from any company that gathers my personal information.
- I would like a standard way of viewing and updating the information.
- I would like to know exactly who they are sharing the data with. The current standard language about “select 3rd party companies” or “trusted partners” doesn’t quite do it for me. I want to know if a site I like is going to sell/share my information with another company that I don’t care to give that information to.
- I want stronger guidance around encrypting and securing my personal data.
- I want a way to delete the data. I realize this is the hardest thing to do since I have probably gotten a discount or free information for my private information and just deleting the information doesn’t compensate the person who gathered the information but on the other hand they could probably work out a system where it costs a nominal fee to delete the information.