Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Privacy vs convenience: hidden privacy costs

The price of convenience is often loss of privacy, we know that.  When we register for an e-commerce site to avoid having to type in our details every time we buy something, we’re usually giving up valuable PII (personally identifiable information.  When we sign up to a number of social media services so we can maintain a common, persistent pseudonym across those services, we’re giving up some measure of anonymity for the convenience of being recognised as the same person in different but related spaces.

But it’s a bit more complicated than that.

First, we’re all notoriously bad at making those kinds of privacy bargain.  That’s largely (and obviously) because the companies that want our data don’t want us to know how valuable it is to them or how much we might regret the consequences.  Usually, they try to play those things down, to make it seem that we’re getting a good deal.  Don’t get me wrong; in some cases some deals are good ones for some people.  What’s wrong is that customers aren’t usually given enough information or sufficient choices to decide whether or not the convenience is worth the price.

But it’s more complicated even than that, because many companies charge us in privacy for convenience we don’t receive, have even signed up for or even necessarily know about.  Here’s an example: Facebook tracking non-users. We’re losing privacy but not gaining anything in convenience.  At least, not from Facebook.  It could be argued that we’re gaining convenience in a general sense, because cookies are useful.  In this view, Facebook is just leveraging general convenience we get from the web for it’s own ends.  In fact, that’s Facebook’s excuse:

It also defended its actions when the Belgian commission released its report last month, saying that most websites used cookies, which it said has been an "industry standard for more than 15 years".

That’s disingenuous.  Companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon claim to take privacy – and their customers’ concerns – seriously, but don’t hesitate to exploit them without permission or notice.  These hidden privacy costs are the ones we should be complaining about most.

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