Digital Privacy – Should we be digital recluses?

Digital privacy is a pretty topical issue at the moment with the recent announcement that Facebook will begin to take control of the user’s microphone as they update their status. This would let Facebook listen into the background of people’s lives and if it hears recognisable audio it will automatically add a description to the users status, which could be something like “ – watching My Little Pony”. If that doesn’t scare half the people in our office, the fact that Facebook will be able to pry into our lives further and be able to sell the data for “advertising purposes” should. One snippet of data doesn’t worry some people, but it’s the vast amount of data that companies are able to compile and on-sell that should concern people.


“if you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold”
MetaFilter user blue_beetle


One benefit of the sharing your personal information is that the internet is better when it knows who you are. A 28 year old male doesn’t need to see adverts for female sanitary items, nor does an 12 year old girl want to see adverts for local trades. So why not be served adverts that you might actually be interested in. The more a website knows about you, the more it can tailor your experience. This isn’t just limited to adverts, the website can also tailor content or purchase recommendations based on supplied information.


Amazon is a leader in tailoring the customers experience by analysing data and serving appropriate content. It has a massive amount of data on it’s customers. When viewing an item the website makes recommendations based on the purchase history of similar customers. It is reported that Amazon sold over 420 items per second in the lead up to Christmas 2013. A massive 30% of these sales is attributed to the recommendations. This shows the effectiveness of targeted content, not only for the retailer, but the consumer.


A great way to describe this is the “Concierge Effect”. Why? Well if you walked up to a concierge and asked them to make a recommendation without giving them any additional information they are going to have a hard time making a suggestion that suits what you need. If you walked up to that same concierge and said, “I’m from Sydney, and I’m looking for a great seafood restaurant to take my partner for dinner. What do you recommend?”, the concierge should easily be able to recommend a concise list of restaurants with the additional information. The same goes for the internet. The more data you share, the more the website can tailor your experience.

So do we block our IP address and never purchase anything online or do we fill in every form or click on every advert we see on the internet? Like everything in life, it is a balance. And you need to be educated about it. I know Gmail reads my emails, stores my search history, tracks my purchases, but no one forces me to use their service (Except Bing, it’s so bad once you use it you’ll happily let Google sit outside your house and monitor you). I don’t have to pay to get highly refined and accurate search results, or an email account with plenty of storage and impressive functionality, so I am happy to share some data with Google. But if I visit a website I’ve never been to before and a full screen newsletter subscription box appears, you can count on the fact I won’t fill it out and most likely leave the site pretty quickly. I don’t even know what the site is and what I am going to get out of it, so why would I just hand over my personal details. It might be blind faith but I also figure Google probably spends more time and money on securing my data from hackers. So what can you do to protect yourself? Be smart and be informed. The best approach is to protect your personal information as much as possible, and only part with it to (reasonably) reputable sources when you can get something else in return. Sounds selfish, but they are getting as much from you as you get from them, if not more.

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