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The Digital Self: Covering your eyes won’t keep you safe from online peeping Toms

The Digital Self: Covering your eyes won’t keep you safe from online peeping toms
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Privacy is dead, or so the saying goes. Thanks to constant tracking online, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram, blogs, and all the rest, we have all killed, or helped murder, the concept of privacy in the digital era. Nothing is secret anymore, either because we don’t want it to be, or just don’t realize the consequences of living our lives through computer systems that can record our every move. Might as well just lay it all out there. After all, if you don’t have anything to hide, you don’t have anything to fear – right?

Not so fast.

Two surveys released earlier this month show that privacy remains important for Internet users – the problem is that the debate has been skewed away from reality. It’s time we brought this issue back out of Crazy Land.

“Privacy isn’t dying. It’s just evolving.”

The first survey, conducted by the University of Southern California Annenberg’s Center for the Digital Future and research firm Bovitz Inc., found that 70 percent of “Millennials” (ages 18-34) and 77 percent of those 35 and older agreed that “no one should ever be able have access to my personal data or Web behavior.” Despite this bold stance, Millennials in particular – those who have grown up on the Web – were quite willing to hand over that data in exchange for something.

For example, 51 percent of Millennials were fine with sharing personal information with companies as long as they “get something in return.” Only 40 percent of those over 35 thought this a fair trade. Fifty six percent of Millennials were willing to share location information in exchange for deals from businesses. And 25 percent were wiling to give up personal info for “more relevant” advertising. This compares to just 42 percent of respondents over 35 who would willingly share location data, and 19 percent who thought targeted advertising was worth a piece of themselves.

USC Annenberg Millennials_Graphic
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The findings of this study compelled Jeffrey Cole, director of USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future, to not only proclaim once again that privacy is dead, but that old people (those over 35) are stuck in a past when privacy was still kicking.

“Online privacy is dead – Millennials understand that, while older users have not adapted,” said Jeffrey I. Cole, in a statement. “Millennials recognize that giving up some of their privacy online can provide benefits to them. This demonstrates a major shift in online behavior — there’s no going back.”

Keen observers will notice that this line – that we are willing to give up some privacy in exchange for something else – is the go-to argument from the advertising industry, which insists that they are only serving targeted ads because that’s what we want; that they are only collecting our personal information to serve us that delicious customized content. In other words, the Annenberg survey is just what the data collection industry ordered.

The second survey (PDF), conducted by online privacy company Abine (maker of anti-tracker browser plugin DoNotTrackMe), also found that privacy is important to most people – 90 percent of the 1,004 respondents said so. Furthermore, Abine found that Millennials conducted themselves differently online – but not in the ways implied by the Annenberg study. Rather than abandoning privacy altogether, the Abine survey shows that young adults are simply more savvy about controlling their info online.

Respondents 30-years-old and younger were 126 percent more likely to use a private search engine like DuckDuckGo, 37 percent more likely to use a virtual private network (VPN) or other type of proxy setup, and 22 percent more likely to have adjusted their social network privacy settings to something less revealing, the survey found. Most impressively, Millennials were 214 percent more likely to create Web content that helps craft a better online persona by giving Google positive results to display when someone searches their names.

It’s high time we uncover our eyes and start assuming the worst.

“This shows that they get this concept that Google is a source of first impressions,” says Sarah Downey, Abine’s lead privacy analyst and the author of the survey. “You need to sort of game that system if it’s harming your reputation. And there are ways of doing that.”

Like the Annenberg survey, Abine’s findings show that our collective definition of privacy is changing, especially among younger users. It also provides a look at where the dust may settle.

“Privacy isn’t dying. It’s just evolving,” says Downey. “What we’re doing now has so much more to do with your digital life and your digital footprint than actual, like, peeping Toms and closing the blinds on your house or locking your bathroom door. All of those things are ‘privacy.’ … But the scope of what people think of immediately is changing – it’s changing from offline to online.”

It is the changing nature of privacy, and the variety of definitions of the term, that make privacy such a difficult concept to talk about in meaningful ways. With this in mind, Downey added an “optional” question at the end of the survey to get a better grasp what people’s definition of privacy really is. Just 339 of the respondents answered the question – “What does privacy mean to you?” – but the answers paint a clear picture. Here are a few of the best answers:

  • “Nobody should have access to my information unless I specifically give it to them (and for their use only).”
  • “I want to control who has my data, and what they do with it.”
  • “Privacy is being able to control how much the outside world knows about you.”
  • “The freedom to be left alone and to control who knows what about you.”
  • “It means having full control over who DOES OR DOESN’T get your personal information.”
  • “Privacy means companies not selling my personal information to other people for money.”
  • “I think privacy is a definition that differs from person to person, but one that always has a basic attribute: People should be able to choose what they reveal about themselves, not have that choice made for them, knowingly or unknowingly.”
  • “Each company/individual should have only the information I have explicitly given to them.”
  • “Being able to prevent data about me from being aggregated across multiple sources to create a complete (not necessarily accurate) representation of my online presence.”
  • “Privacy means my personal information (name, picture, phone number, email and home address) is just that: private, not to be sold or shared, and I choose who is allowed to have that information.”

In short, privacy is really about the ability to control our information– a stance with which nearly a quarter of all respondents agreed. Yes, people may be willing to hand over personal information to get something in return, as the Annenberg survey shows. But that does not mean data collectors should have the right to do whatever they like once they have it. In fact, any company that does this is, according to the respondents above, are violating the very definition of what privacy means to us now.

If that’s the definition, then it very well may be true that privacy is – not dead, but definitely taking a breather. Once we release our information out into the online ether, it’s next to impossible to find out where all that information may go. But because we can’t see everywhere our personal information goes, we are blinded to the reality of its spread – and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a problem only we can solve.

“It’s almost like when you play hide-and-seek as a little kid, and you put your hands over your eyes. You can’t see anyone, so you think nobody can see you,” says Downey. “That’s a perfect metaphor for the entire online tracking world. You can’t see it. And you don’t know who’s going to get it. So you just assume the best.”

Unfortunately for us all, the law is currently unable to force companies to honestly reveal what information they have on us, how that information is being used, or who has access to that information. And it doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon. So if we are serious about regaining control over our data – if privacy really is still important to us – it’s high time we uncover our eyes and start assuming the worst.

Andrew Couts
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Features Editor for Digital Trends, Andrew Couts covers a wide swath of consumer technology topics, with particular focus on…
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