The End or Just the Beginning?

In a chapter of his book ‘Always on’ titled, iSpy: the end of privacy, Brian Chen suggests that following the rise of social media and the subsequent ease to which we can share personal information en mas and companies can ‘mine’ that information that perhaps privacy doesn’t matter any more. I beg to differ, considering that more and more of our arbitrary personal information is becoming a valued commodity among the companies that surround us, it could be said that privacy is becoming an increasingly prominent aspect to consider in our lives.

We’re All Worth It

According to this quick personal data value calculator, companies would pay roughly $500 for the data profile of a thousand, fairly ordinary people such as myself. Scale this up to the 1.4 billion Facebook users and suddenly data is very valuable. Chen says, “the wide spread enthusiasm for always on interpersonal connections is indisputable proof that people are willing to sacrifice privacy in exchange for services richly tailored to their unique lives” (Chen, 2011), while it is true that people are actively sacrificing privacy in some areas for social media services it’s only some of our personal details we’re simply handing out. Information that previously was not considered so private is becoming the more valuable data about ourselves such as, our shopping habits, travel details and opinions on products and services. It’s these details that we are paying close attention to because of the risk of being profiled by companies that suggest that privacy is more relevant than ever.

But at What Cost?

We have a rough idea of the financial implications of data mining but why is it important that we are aware of what companies know about us? Individual pieces of data on a person aren’t particularly useful but when combined into a profile it can be used to anticipate our wants and behaviours in order to tailor services to unique individuals. For example, consider John, we can tell from his Google check in data that he frequents a specific supermarket near his home, Facebook tells us he is a school student and his loyalty card data shows he often purchases work books and pens but he hasn’t bought any pens in a while. It’s getting close to the beginning of a new school semester and by looking at his profile, we can safely assume John may want to buy pens from his local supermarket, knowing this, John’s local supermarket may lower the price of pens to persuade John to make the purchase. Sounds good, right? John’s data profile allowed his local supermarket to tailor their prices to his needs. On the other hand, John’s local supermarket may also lower the price of work books to persuade him to buy things he doesn’t need and then raise the prices of work books and pens later when his profile suggests he has little demand for new pens but in reality he just lost the new ones he bought.

It’s not that companies may use our data to abuse us but the profiles created from this data are incomplete representations of ourselves and this can cause problems between consumers and companies. On the surface it seems that we are handing out our information and that privacy doesn’t matter or exist any more but so many new aspects of our lives are finding a need for privacy that education on privacy and surveillance is vital to maintaining fair business practices and not allowing societies to develop a culture without any sense of personal privacy.

Chen, B 2011,”iSpy: The end of privacy,” in  Always On, Cambridge MA, Da Capo Pres.

Disclaimer: I do not own this cover image, cover image can be found ‘here’


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