In the hyper-connected, technology-centric world we live in, new issues of personal privacy on the Internet have emerged. Some have gone as far to call Internet privacy an oxymoron. The topic has certainly generated a fair amount of attention as of late, but does online privacy really matter?
Felix Salmo in a piece entitled The uncanny valley of advertising contends:
“We all naturally anthropomorphize computers at the best of times, so it’s impossible not to feel, in these cases, that we’re being spied on, and that our most private activities are really not private at all. But I think the emphasis on privacy, in these debates, is misplaced. It’s not like some individual human being out there knows something about me personally that I’d rather they didn’t. And a computer or an algorithm, of course, can’t really know anything at all. But we feel spied on and invaded, because we don’t think of activities like online shopping or social networking or emailing as things we do in public: in fact we would never want to do them in a very public way.”
The above quote does a great job conveying the common mindset behind online privacy concerns. People have emotional reactions when it comes to their personal data and information, but this sort of reaction isn’t necessarily rational when it comes to typical internet practices such as ad targeting.
The prevalence of targeted advertising found on the world wide web account for much of the concern about Internet privacy. These ads are constantly present when a person surfs the web, making online privacy an issue that is ever visible, literally.
The Internet is not the only medium where this sort of ad targeting occurs, yet people seem particularly concerned with privacy issues in the context of the Internet. Charles Duhigg has recently received some attention for his New York Times article entitled How Companies Learn Your Secrets. Duhigg explains how Target employed predictive analytics to statistically determine whether a customer is pregnant in their second trimester, and then mail them baby related coupons in the mail. In one instance he notes, a high school student received these targeted coupons and her angry father complains to the store manager only to later discover that his daughter was indeed pregnant.
The Internet isn’t the only place where data is being collected. Businesses do it all the time outside of the web, but people either people are less aware of it, or at least seem to care less. Target’s lead Statistician Andrew Pole explains that “If you use a credit card or a coupon, or fill out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an e-mail we’ve sent you or visit our Web site, we’ll record it and link it to your Guest ID”. Target, as well as other corporations have used this sort of methodology for decades to collect data about their customers.
Privacy issues exist both on and off of the web, so should there be an emphasis be placed on Internet privacy or privacy in general? In my opinion, the concern should be placed on privacy in general. In terms of the ability to regulate personal privacy, a lot more can be done in the physical world. In terms of regulation, it is much more difficult to mitigate the situation on something as vast and international as the world wide web. However, there is a lot that be can done if you are concerned with your online privacy. I recommend Mashable’s article, Online Privacy: How to Control Your Personal Data, which has some great tips. Personally, I don’t mind the free, relevant coupons I’m being served.