If Privacy Is so Important Why Does Everyone Give It Up?

by Chris Seibold Feb 24, 2009

Some things you know are stupid. Smoking 8 packs of cigarettes a day, playing stroke the box jellyfish, eating the world's hottest pepper and so forth. But until today I didn't realize that I had been completely idiotic when it came to using the internet. Thanks to an almost random encounter with someone who later Googled my name I not only learned that I was completely unsafe but also got a lecture about to use the internet in the right way.

The acquaintance went on and patiently, as though I was a small child that had recently suffered a severe head injury, explained to me how to really stay safe on the net. If you're thinking she recommended firewalls and antivirus software you'd be wrong. According to her the secret of internet safety is to never use your real name. At this point I knew my problems were solved, I would be easily protected from now on. You can find my posts under Apple Hacks, no one will ever figure that one out. For the record a few seconds with pipl revealed she wasn't nearly as careful as she thought she was. For a more concrete example check out this sad tale of animal abuse. Hey, that guy never used his real name either.

The entire incident reminded me of auto security and The Club. Ten years ago The Club was going over big, the idea behind the device was that you would put it on your steering wheel nad your car would remain perfectly safe even if it was manufactured out of solid gold. Why wouldn't someone steal a solid gold Ferrari? Well, the added weight means the handling is less than crisp plus it made the suspension mushy but there had to be more to it than that. The marketing told us that the shiftless criminals would see the hardened steel of the device, the impossible to pick lock and the bright red colors and just give up. One supposes the wannabe criminals would just head back to their lair (because if you're a criminal you have a lair) after being defeated by the mighty technology of the club. Presumably they would then turn to more noble pursuits, like spamming for a living or telemarketing.

Except that isn't what happened. Auto theft did not go down because of The Club, but autos that had The Club installed were less frequently stolen. It wasn't that The Club was impossible to defeat, it wasn't. If you wanted a car with the club installed it was almost trivial to beat the thing. So auto crime didn't decrease, The Club was defeatable but cars with The Club were stolen less. How does that add up? The answer is simple: The Club put one extra step when it came time to steal your car. When the theft minded saw The Club they didn't decide not to steal cars, they just went to the next one. The Club worked but not for the stated reasons. Still, The Club sold a ton because the product played to people's fears while making them believe that The Club made their car impossible to steal even though all The Club really did was make the car in the parking space next to yours a little more attractive.

Which brings us to the question of privacy on the internet. You hear people complaining about it all the time. Folks are worried that people could find out who they are and then, I don't know, do something about it. Usually this is pure hubris. While it is easy to get someone involved in a flame war (the political party of you're choosing sucks by the way, I mean it) it is quite another to get them motivated to get up from the computer to do anything about it. If your writing is compelling enough to get people to actually take action your biggest worry shouldn't be getting confronted in a grocery store, you need to worry about getting more bandwidth and a way to monetize your writing.

For all the worries about privacy on the internet when it comes down to a choice between being private and getting other internet monkeys to look at you people forget that actually staying private means keeping things to yourself. Take Twitter for example. Twitter, and I'm as guilty as anyone, is a place to post what you're doing. People post snippets of info like "I'm on vacation in FL, think I left the house unlocked" When you call it microblogging it sounds cool but when you call it what it is: Yet another way to tell people who don't care what I think Twitter doesn't sound as appealing. The reality aside it is odd that people who supposedly value privacy so much spend hours a day systematically being very vocal about what they are doing. You can't blame them, Twitter is addictive. Drop a couple of thousand laptops in Eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan and within a few weeks Osama Bin Laden would be leaving tweets like "Going outside now, missing the sun." Drop a few thousand iPhones preloaded with Twitteriffic and he'd likely post the a pic of the beautiful sunrise he saw complete with GPS co-ordinates.

Twitter isn't the only place where people willingly give up private ino, not by a long shot. Youtube accounts, Linked in, Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, personal blogs etc. are all places where a lot of people willingly give up privacy in return for greater exposure to the crowd.

When most people say privacy they don't really mean they don't want people looking at them when they are doing something cool they just don't want people looking at them when they're doing something embarrassing or wrong. I've never seen a Twitter post that said "Downloading porn, planning to masturbate a lot later" or "Torrenting Space Buddies, man I love that movie" Even more than that they want their data to be secure. Here's the troubling thing: all that fluff you slap up on the internet tells anyone who really wants to know about you all they need to know.

That is a dire picture. If just posting stuff on the internet exposes you to a privacy risk why isn't your credit card constantly charged for stuff you didn't order and never received? Why isn't you bank account emptied as soon as you deposit your paycheck? Why isn't all the bad stuff you've hear about the internet happening to you right now? The answer can be found with the examplle of The Club. You don't have to be an internet hermit to stay safe, you just have to be a little more careful than the average guy. While you're telling everyone you don't know how to install the floor safe you just bought for your personal stash of old bullion on Twitter someone else is sending their credit card number willingly to people who specialize in stealing that stuff. To get your gold they'd have to get out off their couch, to get that credit card number they don't even have to move.


  • I think the general complaint about privacy is about control.  In other words, if I want to post my inner-most thoughts, photos, or writings online for the world to see, that’s my choice.  But that doesn’t make it okay for anyone else to post my home address, phone number, or credit card information wherever they want without my knowledge or permission.  We want to control our own media.  That may be unrealistic, but that’s the distinction I think.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Feb 24, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • It goes even further than that. With social networking and the like all you have to do is be the goof at the party that everyone is snapping pictures of and abrakafacebook *poof* you are on the internet and don’t even know it. You can be a careful as you want to be about what goes on your site but you have no control over what others may put up about you. So even being an internet hermit doesn’t ensure anonymity. People are too self-centered to stay quiet and whine, why me when they get bit.

    Here’s my question, if people are still complete idiots with all this information thrown at them, what is going to be like if the caution is thrown to the wind?

    Wundryn II had this to say on Feb 24, 2009 Posts: 11
  • Great minds, Chris! I wrote a piece on this them a couple of months back. To quote:

    Yet roll on 2008 and we don’t need Big Brother, because we’ve got ourselves. We’re willing tell the world constantly about our whereabouts and what we’re doing.

    Twitter, which constantly prompts you with the rather Big Brother-esque question, “What are you doing now?”, is the pinnacle of this mad rush to make sure the world knows our every move.


    I agree with you somewhat, Beeb. Rather, I find heaps of people think they have control, but in fact, are too naive to realise just how much they’re giving away or how little privacy is really given by the places they trust.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Feb 24, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • Voluntary disclosure feels good.

    mleaman had this to say on Feb 26, 2009 Posts: 1
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