Posted by Matt Egan 24 March 2014
No one cares about privacy
We all care about privacy. Until someone offers us something for free.
The idea that someone else is able to access our personal information is an uncomfortable one. We don't like the idea of our privacy being invaded, and the merest hint that someone has lost or stolen our details tends to drive to distraction even the most reasonable web user.
Receiving spam emails, texts or calls is a huge annoyance. Even seeing an ad promoting a product at which you looked a few days ago feels like an invasion.
And yet, and yet. If the internet has taught us anything, it is that people will sign up to just about anything as long as it is free. Or to put it another way: we won't pay for online services - directly, at least. And if the price we pay for things we like is loss of privacy - it's a price many of us are happy to pay. (See also 'Smart meters are coming: will they threaten your privacy?')
Privacy and the free economy
Web connectivity has created an economy within which we are reluctant to pay for anything. But faced with the option of getting something for nothing and many of us leap in feet first. But someone is paying for everything, and in most cases it is the very person who accepted the freebie. Remind me: there's not such thing as a free, what now?
If you use an Android phone or virtually any Google service you are getting a free or subsidised service in return for giving up data about everything you do when connected to the web. Google is the world's largest seller of advertising, remember, and the more targeted the advertising the more money it makes. Ever wondered why Apple's iPhones and iPads are so much more expensive than are Androids? In part it is because Apple makes a huge profit every quarter from one-eyed Apple fanboys and -girls, but it is also because Apple doesn't sell your eyeballs on to advertisers and Google absolutely does.
Which is not to say that Google is doing anything wrong, or even that the Google contract is a pact with the devil. Getting services for free or at a discounted rate is good. And this model passes on the risk of purchase to the advertisers - they pay to promote their wares to you, not for guaranteed sales. If you think you are immune to advertising, you will never pay the bill for the goods you have enjoyed. But for this economy to work someone, somewhere is responding to advertising and purchasing products.
I'm not singling out Google here. It is merely the biggest and best. (See also: 'Does Google Glass pose health, safety and security risks?')
We invade your privacy
It won't cost you a penny to visit any of our sites, but we will politely ask you if you mind us dropping a cookie on your browser. We don't want to know anything about you personally, but like all commercial publications we have to pay the bills. So we anonymously track your web-browsing habits in order to show you relevant adverts. (Even if you don't accept the cookies we'll show you ads based on the content of the page.) The content you are reading is free, but the understanding of the advertiser is that they will make back their investment in sales, and that investment allows us to create the content. Ultimately someone has to respond to the ads to make the model work, however, and ads work best when they are well targeted.
(You can of course block all ads. People do. It's much the same as those who watch the BBC but don't pay the Licence Fee. It's probably not enforcable and worse things happen. But if all readers blocked ads we wouldn't be able to run our sites. To which readers typically say they'd pay for an ad-free site, which I don't believe, but is a fairly sophisticated understanding of what is going on.)
You can not have my number (yes you can)
In a similar way we all get sniffy about giving up our email address or phone number when accosted by a chugger on the street, but often cough them straight up to services such as WhatsApp or even Facebook. Because it is convenient (and cheap) to use WhatsApp for messaging, we all gladly give them our phone numbers with nary a backward glance. I'd wager you wouldn't give your number to a door-to-door salesman offering you free calls, but that's pretty much what's happening here.
Again, I'm not saying it's a bad thing. But when considering the privacy of our data the key thing is not whether it is stolen but how easily we give it away. Facebook just bought WhatsApp, in large part because it wants to match your phone number to your Facebook profile to better target you with adverts. Ultimately how successful it is will depend on how well the adverts work and how comfortable we are in continually coughing up our secrets.
And we seem to be pretty comfortable, in what we consider the right circumstances. Privacy is still a concern, but faced with a free lunch no-one cares about privacy.