Friday, June 21, 2013

Privacy is the New Currency

Amazing things happen when we share information online:  Wikipedia is as accurate as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Facebook lets us connect with friends and family around the world. Google Maps guide us in new cities. Twitter lets us share news that is censored by the media, as we see now in the case of Turkey. And these platforms are available to anyone, regardless of socio-economic status, because they are free.

We are paying for these platforms with a new kind of currency: our privacy. Big data lets companies (and governments) mine information for correlations, connections, and patterns, which compares individual behaviour with similar individuals and similar patterns. The results could be as innocuous as Amazon’s Kindle recommendations engine or Facebook’s suggestions for friends. They could be used to predict and prevent public health outbreaks, as seen with Google’s flu trends predictor.

The US government claims that big data is preventing terrorist attacks. This information is used to place individuals on “no fly” lists, banning certain people from travelling without telling them why or providing them the means to contest the decision. Credit card companies use big data to predict the probabability that customers will pay their cards on time. It’s been said that they know you’re getting divorced before you do. Target discovered a teenager was pregnant before her father did. With all the information we put out there, it’s easy to piece together our preferences, daily routines, and the most personal aspects of our lives.

I love the benefits of our hyperconnected world. Facebook and Whatsapp are the easiest ways for me to keep up with my friends and family, who are scattered all around the world. I often find out about news through social media first and then check news sites to get more details. And I wish that my Kindle recommendation engine could be even more accurate and useful.

I do not want the government to put people on no-fly lists without any due process. And I’m not sure if I want my Facebook likes impacting my credit rating. How do we create boundaries that are sensible and acceptable? Or is privacy already dead? Am I being naïve in saying that I don’t want the government to track my day-to-day movements? They’ve probably been doing it for quite some time, even before the Internet existed. (London has enough CC TV cameras to get a sense of anyone’s daily routine. The US has been surveilling phone calls for decades.)

Are we making it easier or are we making it harder? With the new tools available, we’re certainly putting more information out there for the government to track. And we’re also making it easier to fight back: I can post this blog, we can have a global debate, and if social media could top dictatorial governments, then we could certainly use our voices to create sensible policies around privacy.

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