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December 20, 2012

The A to Z Continuum of Online Privacy

by stevenwyer

woman-1s and 0s 130x130

I like speaking in metaphor. Because I learn visually, getting word pictures in my mind helps me retain knowledge. This past week, I was reminded of a sermon I heard that provides a good word picture for me. In this spiritual teaching, my friend shared how we–both as a race of people and individually–wake up to find ourselves in places we never dreamed we would be.

His perspective is that for most of us, life begins in a place of relative peace. Loved and sheltered, we are not confronted with the hard realities of life. Think of this as Eden, a place of safety and goodness. At some point, however, we all lose our Eden. There is a point where we are confronted with a greater reality that is far less perfect. Hopefully, we accept life with a level of resolve and move forward. For most of us that shift represents a move from “A” to “B”. It’s a small move, but it is required in order to function, to deal with the new reality as it is coming at us. We seldom define this minute shift as good or bad.

From there begins a slow, undetectable slide from B to C to D, all along the way continuing to pragmatically accept these small, incremental adjustments in life. Each stage is barely detectable, seemingly required, and almost always rationalized. In a spiritual sense these shifts may look like compromise, uncertain hopelessness or even stoic resolve. The manifestations of these subtle shifts evidence themselves in what I grew up being taught were “sins of the flesh” such as bad habits, vices, or conduct unbecoming.

My pastor friend concluded that our lives might end up along the alpha scale in the L, M and N places of life. Other people may find themselves squarely in the W or X of life and wonder, “how in the world did I get here?” For those in such places, however, there is still hope because we can be moved back over time from Y to K. Some combination of hope, resolve and grace combine to lead us back to a place of sobriety and peace. This is a good teaching.

Many parallels relating to a multitude of societal and cultural shifts in our society can be found in this analogy of a great alpha slide. No need to mention them here–there are more than enough newscasters and prognosticators filling up the media of western culture with projections of a certain Armageddon. For me, life has always had versions of our current troubles; all insurmountable, cataclysmic and fatal. I choose to embrace life of abundance, joy and hope. I live this way because I get to choose!

If I focus myopically on just the aspects of life that we are made aware of on a daily basis at Reputation Advocate these alpha adjustments take the form of various aspects of our privacy. A detailed book could be written on the many ways that incremental shifts have taken place over just the past three years that have eroded our privacy rights as individuals. In the same way that our spiritual slide can occur through the smallest of adjustments in perspective, our privacy rights are being eroded one click at a time. What was initially a big deal for us, setting up our first social account, has become so innocuous to us that we don’t even consider the details held within the Terms and Conditions that we agree to with each online account and each and every upgrade and new version of the apps we have come to need.

Our A to B to C slide started decades ago when we became used to offering our opinions first, and then our preferences and buying habits through surveys. We participate because we feel valued, like our perspective really matters. Our migration to a digital economy accelerated the privacy slide, delivering the ability to gather and analyze information quickly and easily.

Information has become a commodity, a certain type of Legal Tender. Perhaps a seminal day for privacy erosion was December 4, 2009. It was the beginning of personalization online. That’s the day that Google announced that they would begin gathering specific personalized information on our usage, preferences and buying habits online. These days, we no longer barter with chickens and cows but with permission and information. In his book The Filter Bubble (ISBN 978-1-59420-300-8), Eli Pariser says that this could, in hindsight be now seen as an invisible revolution. He offers a quote found on the website written by Andrew Lewis, “If you are not paying for something, you are not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

Chris Palmer of the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains it this way, “you’re getting a free service, and the cost is information about you.” Google, Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Google+, Instagram and dozens of other sites have figured out how to translate this free information directly in to dollars. When you integrate capitalism with technology and free inventory, the angle of our alpha continuum increases quickly. In three short years we have gone from D to P and there is no way to decelerate the slide. I suppose the most amazing aspect of this whole perspective is that we are all so agreeable. If you don’t believe this, here is a simple question; when was the last time you actually read the Terms and Conditions you were agreeing to as you set up a social site or received notification of a new release or upgrade? Point made!

Our culture will adapt, it always has. I am old enough to remember those paper applications that you had to fill out, sign and mail in order to get a credit card. Mayberry and Little House On The Prairie are no more; we are left with reruns and my kids question whether life was ever really that simple. In general, we have resolved that data aggregators will harvest all of our information, package it, sell it and use it against us. It is a foregone conclusion that the combination of Google’s face recognition software and Facebook’s ability to harvest our pictures from across the Internet will offer them to the world and that we must accept this exposure as the price paid for convenience.

On December 18, 2012 when Instagram released news that the photo-filtering site’s updated Terms Of Service would allow it to sell users’ photos without notice or compensation we slid another couple of letters. Instagram said the move would “help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions.” We are the product, remember? My guess is that they will end up back tracking for a period of time and then take another run at it. They will reposition the message to the consumer and massage it until we get tired and it seems acceptable enough.

We have indeed left Eden. We live with a harder reality. Going back to my friend’s message, he offered us hope that reform could begin at any time and that some of what was once lost can still be reclaimed. As I consider how to close, I am confronted with truth, and that is that there is no going back regarding the loss of privacy in our culture.

Since there is no going back, then the hope for me comes in the form of awareness. At Reputation Advocate we spend a great deal of time educating our clients about such things. We believe that knowledge is power. My hope is that this brief article provides you an awareness that allows you to be intentional and deliberate as you wade through your every day digital life. Be aware, be proactive and be at peace.

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