Privacy? Why you should actually be concerned about being tracked online

Hilton Tarrant recently wrote a piece on Memeburn entitled, “Privacy? Why you should let Google, Facebook and others track you online“. I had a few issues with the piece.

My feeling is that he’s uninformed on the matter, made bad assumptions owing to a technical error and decided to ignore some legal complexity, then presented us with a false-dichotomy between ugly display ads and personalised advertising. Let’s pick these apart one at a time.

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In general, Hilton makes a common error when it comes to discussion of privacy, and online privacy in particular; he assumes he knows what he’s talking about. South Africa’s Iain Currie points out in his excellent paper “Some implications of a dignity-based conception of privacy“:

[Much] writing about privacy tends to be intuitionist. This is a form of moral argumentation that relies on people’s innate intuitions of right and wrong. [The] difficulty with [intuitionism] is the unreliability of its results. What some people experience as shameful violations of privacy, others do not.

It turns out that privacy is actually quite a tricky concept, and both the fields of moral philosophy and law have spent a considerable amount of nailing it down. If you are interested in reading more on this, a good place to start, is the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy’s entry on the matter.

Further to that, “online privacy” can get quite tricky at a technical level. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself if you know what a Flash Local Storage Object is, and how it is used to track you (let alone how to control their use).

In demonstration of this, Hilton’s article incorrectly assumes that his DoubleClick ad-preferences profile is a complete indication of what Google knows about him. It isn’t — it’s merely what one division DoubleClick has mined and chosen to show to consumers (i.e. DoubleClick could know more but hasn’t told us because it would freak us out, or just hasn’t chosen to mine that info yet).

What’s wrong

Hilton goes on to ask what’s wrong with Google’s new policy, and posits that there’s nothing wrong, and the new single view Google will have of us will be great. The truth is, we don’t know what’s wrong. These policies are couched in so much legalese, and the actual legal requirements across borders are pretty complicated of late, with little case-law to help resolve it.

What we have seen, is people familiar with this stuff complaining. 36 US Attorneys General have raised concerns as well as regulators in the EU. We’ll wait for them to sort it out, but in the meantime, assuming there’s nothing wrong may be naive.

Even if Google somehow managed to navigate this quagmire, we’re still left with Google’s token attempts at providing us with tools to manage our privacy as it relates to their data collection. They have previously resisted attempts at providing reasonable consumer controls of their data collection, but due to pressure from US legislators, appear to only very recently be coming round.

False dichotomy

Hilton then goes on to extol the virtues of personalised ads, claiming that he’d much rather get something relevant to him, than the garish irrelevant display advertising of the past.

While I appreciate the “lose belly fat fast” advertising that Facebook thinks hits the mark with me, and I’m sure Hilton is looking forward to his “transportation and logistics” ads. You know what’s better? No advertising, coupled with easy ways of finding out information on products we actually want to purchase. I’m pretty paranoid — I block most advertising and tracking, sometimes going to pretty extreme lengths. Yet somehow I am still fully empowered to find products I want, research them in detail and purchase them from companies selling them.

Wrapping up

In short, I think Hilton is wrong, and he’s glossing over issues so important, they will fundamentally redefine parts of the online business model in the coming months and years. Consumer awareness is low, and their ability to exert actual control even lower. We need to raise awareness and support the development of tools and models that reverse the path we’re on. It’s important.

P.S. I know Hilton personally, and think he’s a great guy, I just don’t agree with his argument about privacy.

Image: chrissinerantzi

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