Friday, December 14, 2007

Privacy Debate - Who really cares and why

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and with the recent rash of articles about Google.com's search features storing IP and search query string information, and ASK.com's ability now to erase your information from their servers upon request - I had to simply stop and ask myself... do I care?

I've come to the conclusion that there are 3 different types of people out there when it comes to privacy and awareness. I'll try and give my categories, and examples of each and you can agree or disagree as you will - but I'll make my case for my system of classification anyway

  1. The Concerned - This is the type of person who isn't necessarily doing anything wrong, or searching for anything like "Jihad", "chemical weapons manual" or anything of the like, they're using the Internet for personal or business uses, and other normal, everyday stuff but still cares that he or she is being tracked and monitored. This can be a healthy paranoia, meant to keep "big brother" from taking over our lives.
  2. The Clueless - Happily clicking and typing away this type of person hasn't a care in the world and often has that glazed-over look when someone starts talking about tracking and Internet monitoring. This type of user will generally not have a clue that they're being tracked, why they're being tracked, or how it can be used against them. This user can be a saint or sinner - but in the end doesn't know/care about privacy.
  3. The Paranoid - Whether they are doing anything wrong or not this class of user will generally rebel against any type of "Big Brother" activities. Often times this type of user will forgo special service offerings, or targeted information simply because it provides someone, somewhere with hint into their private life. The paranoid are a closed-minded group typically and see any form of monitoring or information gathering as evil.
I've grouped these three categories together because I think this makes it easier to discuss the merits (or demerits) of each and show where the line between unfounded paranoia and healthy skepticism lies. Most people fall into category 2, the Clueless. My parents, and even some of my co-workers fall into this category. I would venture a guess that a lot of the community of writers that blast this or that company for data aggregation, collection and monitoring are in category 3. These category 3 folks have crossed the line to loony-town and often have very little realistic basis for their positions but will defend them to the death if cornered. Between those two lies category 1 where a healthy mix of paranoia and acceptance makes for intelligent discourse and reaction - I would hope that most of my readers are in category 1 or are striving to get themselves there.

There are dangers with being in either category 2 or 3 and without diving into a rant I'll quickly tell you why. Being clueless allows for others to run your life, and take over your privacy. You should be concerned over your privacy and know who is doing what with your personal information, history, records, etc. This information can lead others to track your every move, and potentially lead to a very Orwellian society which you shouldn't want. Being overly paranoid forces you to question and see the negative side of every potential idea without being able to understand the positives. As a concrete example, speed cameras can clearly be a violation of personal liberties by tracking drivers, their speed, and where they come and go on the motorways. Looking at the other side of the coin; however, they were installed with the intention of being able to locate and catch speeders which is a danger to the million's of driver's on Britain's roads. The intelligent thing to do is analyze the risk vs. reward for this situation and simply look at the big picture. Are cameras so bad? Can they be limited in some way to only capture the information they absolutely need to snag speeders? Who controls the information, and how well is it guarded?

Look - I'm not saying that it's not OK to be paranoid - because I sure am some of the time - but let's be reasonable. The government shouldn't be tracking our reading habits because that can lead to something more sinister - but if I search for "radar detector" on Google's search engine - it should be OK for Google to send me targeted ads that could potentially save me money or help me track down the best product as long as that information is carefully guarded, policed, and disposed of.

Privacy, my friends, is a slippery slope so repel wisely, and draw a line you're unwilling to cross but be reasonable- then be paranoid when someone pushes you past it.

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