Photo: TIm Samoff via Flickr
Every few months, the Internet erupts in outrage about some new threat to our privacy.Remember when Mark Zuckerberg made some offhand remarks about the age of privacy being over? Or when Facebook introduced Beacon, which took info about your shopping habits and shared it with advertisers?
Or how about when Google CEO (at the time) Eric Schmidt talked about how you could “just move” if you didn’t like your home being filmed for Google StreetView? (He was joking, maybe.) Or when Google Buzz did whatever it did with your Gmail info? Remember that one?
Each time this happens, bloggers and privacy zealots scream and yell and pull their hair out. In some cases, the companies are forced to apologise and cancel the offending feature. Sometimes, a few politicians grandstand so they can look like they’re solving real problems and maybe the government gets involved and forces the companies to change a little bit.
But these flaps had exactly zero effect on Facebook’s and Google’s business. No effect. None. Nada. User growth, engagement, revenue — all kept going up without a blip.
Normal people don’t care.
Now, the cranks and bloggers are up in arms about Path, which was apparently uploading users’ iPhone address books to its servers. It provided a great excuse for some very angry people to vent their frustration about completely unrelated topics. (Mat Honan at Gizmodo has a light-hearted summary with links if you haven’t been following along but suddenly crave the bitter taste of bile.)
This whole Path thing follows the non-flap a couple weeks ago when Google changed its privacy policies, or rather formalized and consolidated a bunch of policies that were already in place. Microsoft in particular saw a great opportunity to cast aspersions on its rival and took out full-page newspaper ads talking about how its products would always respect your privacy because Microsoft doesn’t make its money from advertising, or something.
It’s true that some tech companies are often kind of sneaky, taking your personal information without really getting your permission and using it in ways that you might not anticipate. Some even lie about it. Sneaky.
But the level of outrage far outweighs the worst possible consequences.
Nobody ever seems to think through, realistically, what could actually happen with this supposedly valuable and sacred personal information that companies are collecting.
So let’s do a thought experiment here.
Say you have a friend who uses Path. Path just uploaded his entire address book. It wasn’t encrypted in transit, which means that some bad guy could have intercepted it. (Let’s use our very active imaginations to imagine that there are bad guys like this, who sniff wires all day looking for address book information rather than, say, bank account numbers.)
So what are they going to do with that info?
“Well, come on,” you sputter. “Now they know where I live!”
Gosh. If you own a house in most places in the U.S., anybody can go down to the county records office and not only find out where you live, but also how much you paid for your house and how much you sold it for 10 years later. It’s a matter of public record.
Guess who else knows where you live:
- Any company who employed you while you live where you live now.
- Your bank — who also knows how much money you spent last month and has a pretty good idea where you spent it.
- Your credit card company — who also knows what you bought and how much you paid.
- Every magazine you’ve ever subscribed to, and every catalogue and junk mail purveyor they’ve sold your address to.
- The IRS, DMV, and any other government agency you’re forced to interact with.
- Your doctor, lawyer, accountant, dentist, plumber, electrician, and any other professional with whom you have a business relationship.
- Your mum, who’s about to pay you a surprise visit and stay for a whole month.
How do you know that these people are all storing your address on a secure server that’s locked in a room somewhere? You don’t! You have no idea! Your mum might write your address on every Christmas card she sends. Some nutjob at the DMV may be staring at your photo and wondering if he can drive by your house right now. Your dentist just reported you to a collection agency for non-payment of bills.
Unless you’ve taken extreme measures, your address is pretty close to public information already.
“But these are criminals! They’re going to, I don’t know, stand outside my home and wait for me to come out and hit me on the head and take all my money.”
Actually, the bad guys don’t need to go to the trouble of stealing your personal information to mug you. In fact, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Much easier to bash somebody in the face and steal their iPhone.
“OK, yeah, fine, but what about stalkers? This could help stalkers!”
If your stalker’s somebody you used to know — an ex-boyfriend, say — they have lots of other ways of getting that information. Like asking a mutual friend. Or hiring a private investigator, who can probably find you in a few minutes by doing a skip trace.
If you’re worried about complete strangers stalking you, you’re either famous or criminal — in which case it’s time to get some security — or hopelessly neurotic.
“Well, that’s not all they have. They’ve also got my phone number!”
So what are they going to do, prank call you? You’ve got caller ID, right? Don’t answer calls from numbers you don’t know. Let them leave a voice mail. Just like you do with your mum.
“And, um, my email address.”
So you’ll get a few more unwanted messages per day. Keep that spam filter on.
“What about dissidents living under oppressive governments?”
Yeah, OK. Got me there. The secret police may find it slightly easier to track down somebody who uses Foursquare to check into a protest than an organisation that meets only in secret cells and never speaks its name out loud. Such are the risks of operating in public while living under an oppressive regime. (This is no joking matter and I’m not making light of it. Just pointing out how ridiculous it is to blame a smartphone app for the actions of terrifying secret police forces that enjoy almost unlimited power and have monitoring tools you can’t even imagine.)
There is a moral point here that some privacy activists will be quick to make. It doesn’t matter what they do with it — any organisation that takes my information without my permission is wrong. The ends never justify the means.
Absolutely spot-on. You are shining beacons of righteousness. Thank you for existing.
But like I said at the beginning of this, normal people don’t care.
And — shocking confession — I don’t care either. Sorry. I just don’t. These online “privacy” snafus are going to cause me to lose exactly zero sleep. I’m much more worried about my heating bill or all the movies they watch in my daughter’s kindergarten class.
Let’s look at how Path is doing in a few months, shall we? I am willing to bet that this will have absolutely no effect on the company’s business at all.
But it was great for pageviews.
One more thing: When the press focuses on minor privacy flaps like this, it decreases the impact of stories that actually DO involve gross abuses of power, like when music companies use the federal government to shut down a music site for 9 months without due process of law, and then go to Congress and ask for laws that give them even more power. (You think that’s over? Think again.)
And yet one more thing: There’s a matter of degree here, and anybody who says there isn’t is being obtuse and ridiculous.
Don’t confuse privacy with security. Yes, a lot of security threats are overblown by consultants and antivirus firms. But it’s important that online banking and e-commerce sites encrypt data sent back and forth during transactions — theft of that data can lead to direct financial losses (if not for the individual, for the bank who has to cover the losses).
It’s important that companies don’t take laptops with unencrypted Social Security numbers and leave them in a car where they can get stolen. (Although even in this case, the worst likely outcome is identity theft. And while identity theft is a colossal and expensive pain to resolve — I’ve had it happen, with a stolen checkbook used to create a fake ID card — it’s not the end of the world.)
It’s important that the law protect my medical records from companies who might use them against me, like potential employers or health insurance companies.
That’s not this. This is about companies getting ahold of and keeping relatively minor personal information like your friends’ addresses and cell phone numbers, or your browsing history as you travel the Web.
Yawn. Wake me up when it’s over.
NOW WATCH: Tech Insider videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.