We’re adding broadband connections to our televisions, our phones, our reading devices and our game consoles these days, to the point that we expect such connections in almost everything we own. But while connectivity is awesome 90 percent of the time, it’s also scary because it can turn what were once private habits such as reading a book or answering email into something social — in some cases, without us knowing.
It also allows advertisers to better track our activities and to offer up personalized ads. Thanks to more gadgets with a web connection, we all live in glass houses where friends, neighbors, advertisers and potentially the government can see what we’re up to. What’s worse is that the records of our daily activities aren’t a transitory blip; they’re kept for months on end and can be searched, resold or shared.
Sure, your glass house has a great view of the world, and the ability to let your friends know what TV show you’re watching so they can share the experience is nice. But sometimes — perhaps for no other reason that a desire to be alone — you might want to close the drapes.
I place very high value on the notion of privacy. It disturbs me to find that Amazon might be sharing my anonymized highlighting of my Kindle books with the world — not because I’m learning how to make a bomb or reading Harlequin romance books — but because reading is a private activity for me. I’m similarly disturbed when a company that’s already pushing my comfort zone on privacy says one thing, but is apparently doing another.
If we’re going to live in glass houses, here’s what we need as connected consumers:
Transparency: Services shouldn’t say one thing but do another. Nor should they explain what they share in convoluted or complicated terms. And given how fast things change online, when privacy policies are amended, users need to be explicitly told (GigaOM Pro, sub req’d).
Standards: We need the companies that want to use and share our information to agree on terms, and market the heck out of them as a means to educate consumers. IP addresses, for example, are generally considered anonymous but they can be traced back to a household. Consumers need to know that. They also need to get a real sense of other potentially invasive ways tech can track them and understand which ones matter. Having a unified schema for entering and storing data would also help because it would enable users to move their information to other providers and perhaps shop around on the basis of privacy.
Control: I think we’re in many ways having the wrong debate over privacy. Most people don’t know what’s being shared, which means they don’t know what to do about it and instead, just freak out. If you give people information in a standardized format suddenly they can have control — they can decide what to share and with whom.
Having control may not mean that a consumer opts into sharing information through an arduous, click-filled process, but with enough transparency and standard language, can tell immediately what’s going to be shared upon signing up. In many ways the Internet is about the ability to access information or services easily and virally, and opt-ins create a barrier to entry that’s pretty high for businesses. Plus, the expectation that has developed around the Internet is that it’s easy to sign up and share information, but you need to clearly tell people what’s happening and offer them a way out before they share more than they intended.
A Line of Demarcation: How much someone is willing to share online is pretty personal. Already I share more online than I ever thought I would, while I’m sure my daughter, who is now three, will share even more. But as we connect financial and health information to the Internet through broadband-connected medical devices and online health records, we need to set limits as to who owns those records and how they can be accessed.
I think that data should belong explicitly to the user and methods to read it should be interoperable so that it can be shared at will with service providers when needed, while the user retains control. There is no sharing without an explicit opt-in.
Clearly this isn’t going to stop egregious violations of privacy, such as photos of a dead teen being posted online despite the family’s wishes, and it doesn’t mean one shouldn’t exercise common sense when, say, pondering whether or not you should post that pic of your friend drinking.
One way or another, instead of debating the nebulous issue of whether we share too much, we need to talk about how to set standards and educate consumers. Only then will we be able to have a healthy debate over what privacy practices we need in a connected age. We live in glass houses — let’s accept that and start shopping for blinds.
This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com