My view regarding the Internet and privacy has definitely changed after reading the MIT article. Something which really made me pause was the article’s description of the underhanded ways in which Facebook and almost every website gets us to agree to give up our privacy. Most of the time we do not even realize that this is what we are doing when agree to terms and conditions. I do not think that many of us conceive of how our social media presence is being harvested for information about us by already powerful corporations or that the social media corporations are helping them to do it by using psychological science in creative ways to convince us that it is not dangerous to do so.
I will be honest. Before reading this article I often wondered why website bothered with the terms and conditions, given that they knew that they would not be read before agreement. I never even scanned such agreements, and simply click yes so that I can get what it is I have been promised, whether it is a social media account, a news website or a web contest.
The idea of digital exhaust is that we leave a trail of data behind no matter what we do online, and Big Data tries to find those exhaust trails and to harvest them for their own purposes. We need to become more aware of our digital exhaust and more concerned about our digital privacy. The more people who become aware, and change their habits to reduce their exhaust trails, the more likely it is that the data capture of our private information might stop. This is necessary, as the capacity of Big Data is so powerful that we might become completely driven by sophisticated communications that prevent us from seeing clearly. This could result in worse situations than the trickery used to convince us to agree to terms that include our loss of privacy, even communications that interfere with democracy and liberty.
The value of an individual’s personal information now threatens the privacy of individuals, groups and nations. A further concern, beyond just the breach of privacy, is what companies are able to do with that information. They are able to understand how to influence a group and customize marketing to individuals. The threat to our privacy is also the threat to our freedom to think freely without interference from sophisticated psychological methods used in analyzing and using the information which it captures from our online activities as Big Data. The privacy bargain is not a bargain for the individuals who agree to it, because by design it is intended to benefit companies at the expense of our ability to act without undue influence in the world.
In order to address this problem, the MIT article states that “norms, law, codes and markets” are the typical way of making such change. Individuals need to educate themselves on what is happening, and how to avoid it where possible. As the article points out, this actually interferes with the norms we have set at schools and workplaces that use spyware to ensure compliance with rules and policies. Another means is for people to lobby government to pass laws forbidding tracking, perhaps using a browser device. Still, this may just lead to new ways of finding the data, particularly given how many people post their information, preferences and data publicly on their social media posts, reviews of products and services and forums.
My preferences is for a company to fill this need for privacy protection through a new browser, much the way Mozilla changed the use of pop-up ads by creating a browser that automatically blocked them. A technological solution that allows one to use sites that require cookies without allowing for data collection would quickly change the situation as these methods would become less useful to companies.