If you’re reading this, ask yourself: Was your privacy just invaded?
Because, just by clicking on a link to read an online story, you have just transmitted a little bit of your personal, private soul to other people somewhere out there in the world.
And trust me, someone out there is collecting it on purpose.
Now that the dam has burst on our privacy, is there no longer a chance of ever stopping the flood of information again?
It seems we’ve reached a point on the privacy continuum where everybody can know almost everything about us—and perhaps our collective concept of where the boundary rests between private and privacy invasion has started to shift as a result.
One major culprit in the assault on privacy is Facebook. With more than 800 million active users as of July 2011, it’s become a virtual worldwide billboard for secrets, information and photographic evidence of the minutae of our lives. We’ve opened up the book to everyone, launching a boatload of questions about the rapidly changing way we freely throw caution to the wind by freely throwing photos and information ‘out there.’
As an administrator of a separate Facebook ‘page’—you know, the kind that people 'like'—I am privy to a decent amount of information about people that have liked the page: the towns where they live, how old they are, what search engine got them to the page. Now, I can’t see the details specific to individual fans of the page; but it’s the tip of the iceberg about the way Facebook is collecting information about all those 800 million users, and about how they’re going to use it—whether selling it, storing it or leveraging it.
Sure we’ve all heard warnings about what we should and shouldn’t post on the web, especially for someone in the job market, applying to college or at all concerned with what other people might think. But I’ve seen plenty of personal things about people I don’t know personally go viral, whether it’s on Facebook or elsewhere. Somewhere along the way people lost track of what might be considered sharable.
As a result, I wonder if that’s had an implication on the things people feel it’s okay to ask others about. I was recently shopping at a drugstore chain, and in my basket of items were a couple of mouse traps—not something necessarily salacious or embarrassing, but not the kind of thing I’d broadcast over the PA system either. But despite the line of shoppers behind me in earshot, the cashier had no qualms about asking loudly as she rung up my purchases, “Oh, do you have a problem with mice?”
Maybe she wanted to just offer me advice, as part of polite small talk and a way to make a connection in an impersonal world. Maybe her attention-grabbing conversation starter was a way to amuse herself at my expense on an otherwise dreary workday. It wasn’t as embarrassing a question as it could have been—I could have had incontinence pads in the basket. But where does one draw the line? A box of hair color is okay to comment on, but halitosis medication isn’t?
Speaking of incontinence pads, that same pharmacy once sent me a coupon for a well-known brand of them. Having never bought them before, I wondered why they had included me in the mass mailing: Did they know I'd reached a certain target demographic age because I’d given them my birth date at some point? Had my gynecologist sold a list of patients’ names to a direct marketer? While I may not be a potential customer for a product about lack of bladder control, I’d obviously lost control of my information at some point, and they were using it to woo my business.
All stores and retail websites track the purchases you make, especially if you’re a member of any frequent shopping program, like the supermarket point-earning types. I can’t even remember all the websites I’ve registered for over the years and I certainly can’t keep track of all that information I have freely given away—I wonder where it has been sold, spread and traded.
Sometimes that information has been taken without our permission, as was said to be the recent case with software manufacturer Carrier IQ. The company is the target of a class-action lawsuit because it allegedly made a hidden smart phone program to secretly record what users do—using keystroke logging technology—and was retaining information about how 150 million smart phone owners were using their devices.
While Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) is calling for an investigation, it’s not really anything new, as phone companies and other entities are already collecting info. It doesn’t stop there, with more hidden cameras, hidden computer codes and other forms of hidden information creep.
Seems the information cat is effectively out of the bag, and there’s no way to control it. Maybe I can ask it to help me deal with my mouse problem, since that’s no longer a secret I can keep.