Monday, June 18, 2012

An end to privacy

Both Facebook and Google intermittently incite uproars in the public due to their potential breaches in any normal human's 'decency.' This never ceases to be a curiosity in my eyes. Do people honestly think we live in a world where privacy even remotely exists anymore?

We're filmed at work by our employers, filmed walking down the street by various satellites and stores, filmed by stoplight cameras, filmed by smart phones and digital cameras of various kinds. We have built in tracking services attached to our every phone call, land or wireless. Smartphones are walking tracking devices along with GPS. Our cars and laptops are tracked for security reasons. We tweet, post, or otherwise link our web services to our current locations. And this is just our position.

Ninety percent of stores have our address, phone number, name, and purchase history. Both of the giants we began the story with will store any and every last bit of information you'll give them. Every other website is making you sign some agreement that you never even took the time to read... (Yes, that was a lot of hyperbole!)

Let's face it, if someone, somewhere, doesn't know or have the potential to know the colour of the last pair of socks you wore, I would probably be surprised. If privacy is your goal in life, you're already bloody doomed.

But, there are two reasons why this is completely inconsequential.

1. The average individual, in the grand scheme of things, is completely irrelevant, expendable, and replaceable. We are just another statistic. A blip on a graph that can just as easily be replaced by the rest of the population that falls within a standard deviation of the mean. And, better yet, if you do happen to deviate from that population, you're even more irrelevant. Who would you market to? The strange person in the corner or everyone else?

For the sake of brevity, let's ignore the complexities of sub-populations and the leading edge of the popularity wave (which should be likened to becoming the next Michael Jackson). If you're one of those people, you probably don't even write your own social networking material, anyhow. That or you're savvy enough that this entire conversation is moot.

The point is... you can feel safe in your irrelevance.

"But what about those folks I know, ten times removed, who lost their entire livelihood thanks to..." I can hear you say.

The answer is obvious. We're statistics, right? A certain percentage of people are going to have bad things happen to them: the Canadian Goose that should not have arrogantly crossed the street.

"But if we had had our privacy..."

Oh no. You can't get out that way. Those privacy settings, as I tried to demonstrate above, don't do jack. You would need to drop out almost entirely or spend the greater part of your time hiding yourself. That is, to avoid getting hit by a car, you would have to stop crossing roads (e.g., RFID credit card fraud is just one demonstration that your information is already everywhere and vulnerable). Though some percentage of people will adopt this method, the greater majority will not. Surprising? Hopefully you're not afraid to cross the road...

But my point is not that people should stop shouting nor is it that your privacy settings should be at zero. It's that none of this has anything to do with 'privacy.' The reified construct hides more than it helps. Address the problems that come your way as best you can and then forget about them. But, name them as they are: "Facebook and Google have massive amounts of your information that is potentially vulnerable to an attack by malicious third parties." That's not a privacy issue. It's a software one.

On to the second point.

2. Personally tailored advertising is genius.

Let's face it. As a member of most Western societies, we buy stuff. We like to buy stuff. We spend a greater part of our lives enabling ourselves to buy stuff. If every single ad I ever saw from this point forward was perfectly tailored to inform me of the things most relevant to me that I could buy (Think of Amazon's, "other users who purchased this purchased..")... I would almost watch commercials instead of regular television. I don't think I am the only one that would feel this way. But, if we even accept that tailored advertising is not the next apocalypse, where do we stand on this issue?

I think most people do have a problem with people making money off of their actions, especially if they don't get a piece of the pie. I, certainly, often feel this way. However, I think we have the order of things reversed. It is not the case that Facebook and Google are providing you a service and then capitalizing on your use of the service. Rather, Facebook exists to make a (tidy) profit and then the user leeches off of this fact in such a way that they get services out of it (more likely this relationship is bidirectional but I choose to emphasize this direction due to the lack of current discussion on this perspective). The entire claim for "better privacy" is an illustration of this point: the companies want to continue making money, so they (sort of) oblige.

One could argue that at some initial point Facebook or Google was not really for profit. However, I would argue that this point is practically irrelevant and the proto-F and G were conceptually unrecognizable to the organizations of today. Additionally, these fledgeling companies would never have left the ground if they did not even have the potential for profit and, hence, investment.

Thus, in a nutshell, the user is an irrelevant leech with dedicated advertising.

Go social networking!

This post was partially inspired by Network.