Killing Anonymity: The Question of Data Privacy

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Click to learn more about author Cathy Nolan.

Maybe we should ask, “who or what killed anonymity?”  The question being debated over and over again is “have we given away our privacy for convenience and security?”  It would appear that the answer is “yes”.

Some of our privacy we give away without even knowing it, but most we more-or-less consciously trade for being able to use GPS, connect with our friends on Facebook and Twitter, order goods online, install security cameras around our homes, and get better insurance rates by installing devices that monitor our driving behavior (and keep track of WHERE we drive).  Information about our private lives is analyzed, collated, segmented and circulated around the world by retailers, data brokers, corporations and governments.

In pre-millennial days a person could easily walk through a store without being recognized and targeted with ads, could make anonymous charity donations, write an opinion or take a survey without disclosing a name, and make a telephone call and not have caller ID flashed to the person on the other end.  It seems those days are gone forever and today it would take an enormous amount of effort to evade the constant barrage of data aggregators trolling your identity and your digital personality.

Examples of the loss of privacy abound.   Retailers love that they can now recognize you in their aisles via facial recognition and retrieve your purchase history instantly.   Now they can personalize incentives as you shop as well as give you information such as price comparisons, product reviews, and offers to ship a purchase to your home.

Some stadiums and music venues are using apps that send you to the shortest ticket line, tell you where your favorite beverage is being sold and direct you to the souvenir shop in order to get you into the building faster knowing you will buy more food, programs, and liquid refreshments.

Services that offer to “un-roll” you from vendor emails and junk mail are often fronts for market-research companies giving them free access to your inbox.  So-called intelligent personal assistants as well as any device that can respond to voice commands is, by its very nature, listening to you 24-7.

Some of these losses of privacy become clear only after-the-fact when we apply for credit, find out our spouse can track us via a smartphone, or see a picture of ourselves that we did not post “tagged” on Facebook.  Other losses are never seen because our individual pieces of information are studied to learn our patterns of behavior which are then used to predict our intelligence, personality traits, and our political leanings.

As we have seen in recent elections, some voters were “manipulated” by targeting them with tweets and stories about one candidate or another based on prejudices and social biases

In rebuttal, there are also examples of how the loss of privacy can do some good.   Law enforcement monitors Facebook and other social media looking for those who post criminal exploits or make threats of violence.  Some shoppers, say they love the new technology which will allow them to search the items a store sells and if a particular item is out of stock, they can have it sent from the warehouse to their addresses at the touch of a keypad.  And it’s oh so easy to find an address with GPS or to order products online from a retailer who has kept track of your buying history.

However, privacy should be what each of us decides it should be for our own circumstance and not have our lives become a complete open book.  Our freedom is being threatened by the surveillance of our communications, the tracking of our locations, and the manipulation of our emotions.

As Richard Rubin wrote in USA Today, “In the new age of digital democracy we face formidable challenges to our freedoms yet unforeseen. Surely we cannot afford to compromise the rights it has taken 241 years to secure.”

Thus, the answer to the question of who killed anonymity could be answered “we did it to ourselves?” Yet most people are still unaware of what that means. The phrase “I have nothing to hide, so why should I care?” has led to our privacy being monetized as we trade it for cheap services and then buy products advertised to protect it.  We stare into our smartphones and ignore privacy policies that pop up while blithely giving up our secrets to the data firms tracking everything we do.  .

January 28 is International Privacy Day whose purpose is to raise awareness and promote privacy and data protection best practices.  But without YOU taking some precautions it’s just another day. The United States government has not adopted a comprehensive information privacy law and it’s about time it did. Can we go back to having a “private” life?  Some say it’s too late but just as the EU is trying to take a step backward to protect its citizens it is up to each of us to demand our government do the same.

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