Can privacy be a premium service?

Time and privacy are two aspects of our modern lives that are in short supply. The constant distractions of modern communications have placed increased demands on our time. And similarly, as we do more things on the web, we leave our footprints in the sand, sacrificing our privacy in micro-chunks: be it surfing on the web, or simply conducting searches on Google.

Time and its management are highly personal issues, but when it comes to privacy, the chinks outweigh the average person’s capabilities. And that prompted me to as the question: can privacy be offered as a value-added (premium) service by carriers and web service operators such as Google.

There are those who fret about the Government snooping into our lives. Yet, at the same time, we are all happily sacrificing a little but of our privacy every day in the name of cool or convenience. Take, the new friend-finding service on Sprint Nextel (powered by Loopt) as an example. The Wall Street Journal reports that such location-based services now account for one third of US carriers’ application-related revenues, ahead of sports and music.

And that’s not all. The hot new trend of personal broadcasting (or neo-modern narcissism) only exacerbates the problem. From photos uploaded to Flickr, location-based services announcing our presence, alert services like Twitter and Pownce acting as nano-thought transmitters, videocasting via Kyte, or just plain old Facebook – it seems in this post-broadband world, everyone is happy to share everything.

This might seem as the final deliverance on the promise of the two-way web, but this upload-and-share philosophy comes with some baggage. While in the past it was your emails that could get you into trouble (Bill Gates would agree), now there are many more ways to get busted.

Only last week we had the quirky WholeFoods CEO whose “anonymous” self promotion has gotten him into trouble, lately with SEC. There was the whole fracas about Plazes CEO who skipped a conference, making an excuse, only to broadcast his location from another city. And now, The Times of London is reporting how Oxford University proctors got hold of photos of wild celebrations from the Facebook, and fined the rowdy students.

The tragicomic-sensationalist headlines not withstanding, as the shift to online interactions gathers momentum, we might find our lives more exposed than ever before. If not today, but soon enough, we might be willing to pay to protect the privacy, and erase the digital footprints we are leaving behind.

The search engine giants – Ask, Yahoo, Microsoft and to some extent Google – have started to put privacy protection procedures in place, but they are meaningless. At least three of them will be keeping our search data for a year – which is too long. For a nominal fee of say a $1 a month, they should offer us ability to erase our search behavior every week.

Similarly, web services could use better privacy as a distinguishing factor. After all if all social networks are going to be platforms, I should ideally opt for one that protects and respects my privacy. Other web services could follow – turn privacy into an opportunity for making money.

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