Privacy Paranoia

December 3, 2010  |  technology

Many are paranoid about privacy, such as how our activity is tracked online.  One of the biggest objections I see is that Web sites and advertising companies will use our personal information in order to display more relevant advertisements to us.

Why are we so scared about that?

Americans, I think, are rightly concerned about “big brother” watching what we do, and many equate corporations watching our behavior and tracking our interests as impeding on our privacy.  But there is a fundamental difference between the real “big brother,” i.e., government, impeding on our privacy and a company supposedly doing so.

When we interact with a company or another person, it is on a voluntary basis.  We chose to go to Whole Foods or Ralphs or visit Google or Facebook.  We do not have such a choice when it comes to the government.  Any corporation, no matter what the size, cannot force us to do anything.  It can’t force us to buy their products, use their services, or visit their Web sites.  Only the government can do this; it can, and does.  For starters, it forces us to pay taxes, get our car smogged, and buy health insurance.

Since government’s proper function is to protect individual rights, when it comes knocking on our door and asking for information that could only be used to violate our rights, clearly fears of “big brother” are justified.

How much money do you make?  What is your ethnicity?  What are your religious beliefs?  Such questions are none of the government’s business, yet when and if required by law, we have to provide such information to the government.  That is not the case with a company.

The purpose of a company is to make money.  It is to offer us value in exchange for money.  It is not to destroy value.  So when an advertising company wants to know our income, our age, our interests, our buying habits, etc., this information is used by the company to potentially provide us with better value in the future.  It uses this information for the purpose of better their product and marketing efforts to reach the right buyers, i.e., the people who want to buy their product the most.  Maybe it’s you.  Maybe it’s not.

The smarter advertising technology, the happier I am.  If I never see an ad for ESPN again in my life, that’s a good thing, because ESPN should know that the only game I like is Badminton.  Yet when Badminton is being played on the Olympics, perhaps NBC could send me an e-mail alert telling me where to go watch it and when.

That’s a good thing for ESPN and for me: They won’t waste their time trying to reach me and I don’t’ have to sort through ESPN spam.  It’s also a good thing for NBC and me: They can target me specifically—someone who actually may be interested in their product—and I probably would have forgotten to even look for it in the first place, but once reminded gone and watched it.

Am I giving up my privacy?  In a small sense, yes, but there is no harm to me and, in fact, only value to be gained.  “Giving up” your privacy is not necessarily a bad thing.  You do it every time you introduce yourself to someone: “Hello, my name is Sean.”  Now you know my name.  You didn’t before.  This allows you to engage with me in some way—or even avoid me in the future if you don’t want to deal with me.

Of course, companies and other people can and do violate rights.  But this is the exception, not the norm.  And such violations should (and generally are) illegal and individuals should be protected against those who do violate their rights by force—which is the proper function of government.

So the next time you’re worried that Best Buy may be watching your behavior as you walk through their store, or a Facebook is tracking how you use their social network, or the supermarket asks you to sign up for a loyalty program, know that in all likelihood, they are doing so for the purpose of improving their product or to better reach or communicate with you about things you actually may want to buy in the future.

Often times we get “junk mail,” whether electronic or via snail mail, and we cry for privacy laws because they are a hassle to sort through and throw away.  But when we get or see content we actually want, we don’t think of it that way.  It just feels like our friends at Bed Bath & Beyond were kind enough to send us another twenty percent off coupon, and we don’t cry about our privacy.