Selling The Stories Of Our Lives: Technology and Privacy (Part One)

In a recent issue of Esquire there is a humorous feature entitled “Help Us Serve You Better!” which imagines a series of correspondence from various companies. The consumer to which these missives are directed is offered, in not very subtle terms, a variety of “helpful” suggestions. For instance, he is reminded of the items he searched for before choosing the sale item (cheapskate!), he is pressured into upgrading the bouquet of flowers he sent his mother, he is “thanked” for buying a pair of shoes that had languished for months in the warehouse (fashion faux pas!), and then he is sardonically asked about the success of his “business trip” in Thailand. Finally, one site suggests some self-improvement books to ameliorate his work and relationship issues.

While this scenario is amusingly over-the-top, and of course could never play out as depicted, many people might be surprised—and mortified—to discover how much information regarding their personal lives is readily available, and how easy it is to draw accurate (and potentially embarrassing) conclusions based on relatively minimal amounts of data.

The concept of privacy and technology is nothing if not complicated, intriguing and, importantly, ever-changing. As is always the case, before we can predict with any hope of accuracy what the future will look like, we need to adequately understand both the present and the past. It is also imperative to recognize, or accept, that technology is never a static phenomenon; by the time we grapple with one aspect of a particular product or progression, it has already mutated, improved or become something else altogether.

This is not to suggest that one can’t hope to become familiar with the processes and behind-the-scenes methodologies that transform ideas into innovations. Indeed, whether we are talking about home audio, portable video or eReaders, most of these products have discernible histories that illustrate how they evolved. Speaking of the Internet (in general) and concepts like cookies, aggregated information, behavioral targeting and data exchange (in particular) is, understandably, more problematic. A recent study in this series closely examined specific elements of this technology story (“The Future Has Already Arrived: The Localization of the Internet”, 5 Technology Trends to Watch 2008).

Most of us are reasonably familiar with the technologies—or at least their existence—that sites utilize to store and share the data we provide. Cookies, for instance, refer to text files websites store on your PC: they are used for such commonplace, and innocuous tasks as automatically recalling passwords and auto-populating previously sent information (a shipping address or friend’s e-mail address). Cookies are also used for more sophisticated purposes, such as compiling data based on where we go and what we do (each day; over time) on the Internet. The concept of cookies, and the ways in which they have been utilized, informs any discussion about Internet privacy. Before we contemplate the implications of tomorrow’s experience, let’s briefly take stock of how far—and fast—we’ve arrived where we are today.


Anyone who has spent any time on a social networking site likely has personal experience with a 21st Century dilemma we’ll call “poster’s remorse”. This is a subtle but potentially catastrophic derivation of what is commonly referred to as buyer’s remorse. Poster’s remorse involves the ill-advised, mistaken or accidental disclosure of information and its aftermath. This information, sent innocently, unknowingly or while in an impaired state, with one click of the mouse becomes public knowledge. Examples range from the relatively harmless to the profound and permanent. The former might involve the inadvertent announcement (or uploaded pictorial evidence) of one’s whereabouts: for instance, being at one friend’s party and not out of town—the excuse used to get out of the other friend’s party. The latter could include a Facebook update, or picture, sent in retaliation (divorce lawyers are now happily incorporating these types of disclosures into their cases). Finally, there are the sorts of indicting evidence that an employer can see, situations that tend to end badly.

An important distinction here is that all of the above examples typify shared information (however unfortunate or regrettable) that the individual involved is aware of. What about the ease with which we can—unknowingly, maliciously or even with genuinely good intentions—share information about someone else? A twitter update, or a re-tweet the person may have intended (however naively!) for a limited audience, or the old-fashioned forwarded e-mail are all exemplify ways we have less control than we might prefer regarding what the world knows about us. Perhaps the most complicated contemporary dilemma is the ability of relatives, friends and even (or especially) mere acquaintances to post and tag photos on Facebook.

Lest this sound straightforward or even simple, the implications are actually deep and ever-expanding. It is, for instance, now common practice for HR departments to compile what amounts to a personal dossier of any given applicant’s online history. This would include anything from the obvious social networking posts to the type of interaction many would assume is safe or anonymous, such as blog posts or participation in discussion groups or forums. Even the more savvy Internet users who actively control and limit the people who can “see” them may find that their very lack of transparency arouses suspicion. It can become a Catch-22 revolving around the inference that if you’ve done nothing “wrong” you have nothing to hide. A blocked or inaccessible identity might, in some eyes, be as provocative as having shared too much information.

We already have had widespread disenchantment regarding Facebook’s less than transparent privacy policies, and the site’s increasing popularity will be the front line of this debate—in its myriad facets—for the foreseeable future. Indeed, as this piece was being written a fresh controversy erupted concerning “Facebook Places”—the new geo-location feature (similar to the incredibly successful foursquare, which enables people to “check in” from any location). Ostensibly these services are opt-in and self-serve, but consistent with the less savory implications of photo-tagging, people may find their whereabouts being broadcast to unwanted parties (think everything from potential burglars to stalkers). Because of the remarkable influence of these services, it seems likely that only eventual hassles ending with legal consequences will inspire concerted efforts to educate and even regulate their use, especially for minors.

Once we begin to acknowledge the ways our activity (and the activity of those in our close and extended networks) can have far-reaching and unintended effects, the whole notion of what we do online becomes more intricate, and serious. Then when we consider the fact that our personal data is being tracked and sold, the situation becomes more than a little problematical.



  1. Excellent piece, Sean. I took computer science in college and learned soon that the safest computer is the unplugged one from the wall socket. I believe that privacy is a thing of the past, the only thing you can do now is damage control.

    Sadly, we all fell for Facebook and now it is impossible to set yourself free from it. Everyone I know uses it, although I have mine on “stealth mode” (wishful thinking).

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