I'm not just talking about the NSA -- the discussion spans from retailers to drug companies to online giants such as Facebook, Apple and Google.
It seems that everyone is getting into the game of amassing enormous amounts of information about us as individuals.
Ten years ago, I would have been seriously concerned about this loss of privacy. It's my information -- I should have control over where it goes, and how it's used. But that mindset is long gone. It's something that appears to be inevitable -- like death and taxes -- and may ultimately end up benefitting all of us.
But did we ever really have personal privacy?
An Example From The Real World?
There was a time when I was spending a great deal of time in Waterville Valley, NH. It's a wonderful small community in a remote pocket of New England, a real gem surrounded on all sides by national wilderness and mountains.
But as I got to know people, I felt I was living in a fishbowl -- just as you'd find in any small town.
Share a few drinks with the locals, and you'd quickly end up getting into everybody else's business. I found it quite amazing what people could piece together about other people -- simply by being observant, and sharing observations with others.
I'm sure the individuals being discussed had no idea of just how much of their personal lives were now in the public domain, and up for discussion. The more shocking revelation was when I realized that -- had I not been present -- they'd probably be talking about me and my wife :)
I came to realize that being part of a small community involved an implicit agreement that you'd be involuntarily giving up a great deal of your personal privacy, and there wasn't much you could do about it -- other than refusing to be a part of that community.
And I'm sure anyone who has spent time in a small town would agree.
But there were advantages as well. The local law enforcement never had a problem finding out who the troublemaking kids were, you could easily make connections with people who had like interests, the community would rally around shared needs, and so on.
It seemed like a good trade to me.
Fast Forward To The Digital Commons
The internet is now woven into the very fabric of our lives, and there's no going back. It can be fun to read accounts of digital natives who attempt to go off-the-grid, and just how hard it is for them.
But as we go about our digital lives, there seems to be no shortage of organizations who want to harvest our information, ostensibly to provide something we want: a cheaper insurance policy, better healthcare, protection against foreign terrorists, a more targeted ad, and more.
These organizations are inherently forced to use the very best tools available to achieve the goal at hand. If they weren't in the information harvesting business, there'd be problems.
As individuals, we live in a world where can't get what we want unless we join the extended community, and share details about ourselves. It's a bargain we choose to enter in, and we do have choices.
Sure, it'd be reasonable to expect that Party A won't share what they know about me with Parties B,C and D -- they're supposed to keep my best interests at heart -- but that doesn't happen in small towns, does it? The details can be just too juicy ...
I consider this unavoidable sharing as falling into three buckets: (a) sharing that visibly benefits me, (b) sharing where it's not clear whether or not it benefits me, and (c) sharing that clearly disadvantages me.
A doctor sharing my health records with another provider would be in the first category. AdSense trying to vainly target ads that are relevant to me would be in the second category.
I would put the 100+ spam emails I receive every day in the third category, as well as my phone numbers which are abused at least 5 times a day.
The Tools Are Getting Much Better
When email replaced physical mail, it become inordinately cheap to mass mail, thus the explosion of spam. Advances in big data technology and techniques are doing the same thing -- it's getting inordinately cheap (relatively speaking) to amass huge amounts of information, and then analyze to find new insights.
However, the current state-of-the-art can sometimes leave one unimpressed. Acxiom's opening of a public portal where you can see (and correct) what they think they know about you was laughably incorrect, at least in my case.
And, no, I didn't correct it for them :)
But that won't last for long. Accurate profiles of us -- who we are, what we do, how we think about things, who we associate with -- will be largely public domain knowledge before long.
Just like it is in a small town.
Where Does That Leave Us?
I can't speak for you, but it leaves me in a state of quiet acceptance regarding the inevitable state of affairs, combined with an optimistic note: all this can potentially benefit us and the world around us.
At a local level, there are plenty of examples of more effective police forces and community services. Public education has started to transform, as well as health care. Extreme poverty may be seriously diminished in our lifetime -- as well as pervasive diseases.
The basic concerns of humanity, made better through the extensive sharing and analyzing of information.
I guess I'm willing to give up a bit of my personal privacy for that :)
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