“But I have nothing to hide!” was the thrust of some vociferous comments and emails received, after our recent column about how attitudes to privacy vary across generations and cultures. “What does it matter if Google tracks where I go on or offline, or my phone could be used to track my location? I am not doing anything wrong or deceiving anybody, so I am not bothered”.
This makes me slightly uncomfortable, and I am not going to attempt to generalise here about ages or nationalities. Because the internet and services doing the tracking certainly make no such distinctions, you can be sure of that. There are several reasons I believe that a certain amount of privacy and discretion matters, to the most honest people in the world, and I’d like to clarify that a bit more today.
Firstly, information is power, and personal information is money. Facebook has built an entire business encouraging you to share information about yourself in exchange for use of certain social tools, that they can sell to people who want to sell things to you. Google has done the same with search. Anybody who still doesn’t understand that to two of the world’s largest corporations you are the product, needs to think long and hard about what they are sharing and simply be more conscious about it. It’s OK to share if what you get in return is worth it to you – such as a personalised search experience, or if you are in the UK you can get a free coffee at Waitrose by giving them incredibly valuable purchasing history information. Quid pro quo and we all win.
Although we are reassured by privacy agreements and the like that the information packaged and sold is aggregated and non-identifiable, that doesn’t alter the fact that you have a real tangible worth as a consumer with eyeballs on their page, and you should respect that about yourself. Don’t give yourself away for nothing! And once that data is aggregated and sold on you have even less control or say about it and how it gets passed around and transferred.
But so what, right, you aren’t breaking the law or cheating on your partner. If you are kidnapped or murdered, perhaps it’s even a good thing that your location can be found by pinging your mobile phone or your last known app update?
Well, actually, we all have things to hide. I hide my body every day before I leave the house, by putting clothes on. I close the bathroom and bedroom door because some parts of life need to keep a little mystery. My kids don’t know what they’re going to unwrap on their birthdays, my other half doesn’t know the precise state of my overdraft… And if I choose to sing in the shower I don’t want anyone to hear it. Because even amongst those closest to us we are all individuals with some rights and expectations of privacy.
Privacy matters in human life and relationships – living in a family or a community or a country entails certain responsibilities to others in how we behave, but we all entitled to some refuge from that oversight and the need to self-monitor and present ourselves at all times. We need space to try stuff out, make mistakes, change our minds – not to behave illegally or nefariously but simply to develop and evolve as individuals.
We can easily forget how fortunate we are I think to live in a time and place where we get to do this, where no instruments of state or religion or other powers attempt to regulate what we do behind closed doors. I sometimes think we have given away parts of that easy-come freedom far too easily when we scroll through yet another online privacy agreement and cheerfully ‘agree’ without a thought to the consequences.
And what may they be? Hardly totalitarian oppression, and you may disagree and thing this metaphor is stretching a point too far. But there are well-documented cases now of people denied medical cover credit because of things they have disclosed on-line in what they thought were quite unrelated circumstances, or other peoples’ behaviour with whom they are aggregated –
for example, credit card companies sometimes lower a customer’s credit limit based on the repayment history of the other customers of stores where a person shops.
And when it comes to government data management and oversight, in these times of heightened terrorist alerts, have a good hard think about what that means. Things have changed hugely in recent years, and we have had to accept that our movements around the world are centrally tracked, even as we all line up to take our boots off in the security line and somehow kid ourselves this makes us safer.
Never forget too that governments make mistakes – if we allow them to start
looking over our shoulders “just in case” we might be involved in wrongdoing, then it is possible some machine algorithm or human operator will make the wrong call. You may not think you have anything to hide, but you could end up on a government watch list or worse, if you behave in certain ways. This can affect your liberty and freedom to travel. Just because we may be fortunate enough to live in a time and place where are movements are pretty unrestricted, despite being tracked as go, it doesnt mean things can’t change.
Don’t have nightmares… But don’t sell your secrets too cheaply either. Share consciously, READ the privacy agreements, ask questions, and make conscious choices.