State of the Web: Who killed privacy? You did

Privacy / Do Not Track (shutterstock lightspring)

In 1999, Sun Microsystems’ then-CEO Scott McNealy infamously declared, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” At the time, it was a shocking thing for someone in McNealy’s position to say. But now, just 12 years later, it’s clear that he was right. We took his advice. We got over it.

Why did we do that?

Facebook boom

Nearly 1 billion people around the world have signed up to divulge endless details about their lives on Facebook, which has in turn used our willingness and need to share ourselves into a multi-billion dollar business. The same goes for Google, Amazon, Twitter, Pinterest, Foursqure, and countless other companies that trade the ability to connect for our personal data. 

Yet, despite the growth of these services, an opposing undercurrent still flows through a segment of the population. Anytime Congress or corporations make a grab for our data, “privacy advocates,” that dying breed, cry out “Injustice!” for the rest of us. They warn us of the dangers of allowing such information sharing. “Do you really want the corporations and the government reading your emails and text messages?” they ask in a grave, incredulous tone. Based on the relative quietness of our public outrage, the collective answer seems to be, “Sure, why not?”

McNealy said privacy was dead 12 years ago, and things have only gotten worse. This isn’t just troubling, it’s downright weird. Why do we freely handed over the details of our lives? Is privacy really that invaluable?

Who to blame?

Granted, a significant chunk of what seems to be complacency is almost certainly simple ignorance. Just as it is impossible for people who spend their life savings on lottery tickets to comprehend the near-impossible odds of winning, understanding the amount of personal information available on the Web and the ease with which that information can collected is equally staggering. We know there’s an immediate benefit to connecting with friends on Facebook, but fail to consider the possibility that the information could be used against us. But, whether we want to think about it or not, the possibilities are frightening.

In 2006, during his famous “Privacy Is Dead — Get Over It” speech at the Next HOPE hacker conference, private investigator Steve Rambam laid out this chilling reality in simple terms: “If you call me and your number accurately comes up on my caller ID, within 30 seconds, I know your name, your address, Social Security Number, your date of birth, your sex, your driver’s license number, and your criminal record,” he said. “Give it about five minutes, I know a lot more: marriage and divorce, employment, corporations, property, lawsuits, your photo. Everything today is now available if you know where to look.”

Online Privacy

Six years later, Rambam’s words seem like everyday knowledge. We know our personal information is out there in the digital world. Warnings of systematic privacy invasion have become cliche. We might not be able to comprehend the quantity of data, or how those who “know where to look” do the looking, but we seem to accept the availability of our private information as the new reality. As a society, we’ve surrendered. We don’t understand it all, and we don’t want to think about it anymore.

In addition to our complacent surrender, we’ve simply been tricked into thinking privacy doesn’t matter by companies that profit off of our over-sharing. As Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, told Consumer Reports in May, “Facebook has purposefully worked to erode the concept of privacy by disingenuously claiming users want to share all of their personal information.”

Given that Facebook’s entire business model is based on selling targeted advertising, Chester’s theory is difficult to dispute. But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has another theory: People are just more willing to share nowadays.

“…In the last five or six years, blogging has taken off in a huge way and all these different services that have people sharing all this information,” Zuckerberg said in 2010. “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

At the time, I might have disagreed with Zuckerberg, and instead taken Chester’s side, that Facebook is pushing a new social norm for its own good, not simply riding an inevitable cultural wave of openness. Not anymore.

Regardless of which came first — Facebook’s desire for greater openness, or ours — it is clear that we have given the social network, and all other companies and governments that benefit from voluntary personal information sharing, exactly what they want without putting up a fight. The death of privacy as a common value is our own fault. We allowed it to die, and continue to expedite the smothering by making it appear as though anyone who wants to maintain pre-Facebook levels of privacy has something to hide. Privacy is no longer an ideal, it’s a dirty word.

Last word

The final question is, of course, so what? And the frustrating answer is, no one yet knows the long-term consequences of making so much of ourselves known to the world. That’s what makes the death of privacy both frightening and easy to ignore. Perhaps we will all just accept that everyone has dirty laundry, and overlook the salacious details that might pop up about a person from time to time. (Not a chance, I’d say.) Some even believe that privacy has begun its reincarnation, that we will return to a time when privacy is valuable and demanded by the masses. But even if that happens, one fact remains: Once something is out, there’s no getting it back in. Even if privacy comes back to life, there’s no killing the damning details that have already made their way into the world.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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