Online Privacy and the Paradox of Personal Data

May 23, 2014 | By: Jessie Gould | 3 min read

A few months ago, I realized I was unique. So unique in fact, that when you Google my name you will be directed to several webpages with my face on them. So unique that every time I get online, ads pop up suited to my browsing habits. If I post a picture, Facebook can identify me amongst a crowd of my closest friends.

Chances are you’re pretty unique too.

Today, the online experience is defined by personalization. We check email, social media, and news feeds that are tailored to our interests. But in order to have the privilege of a streamlined experience, users must offer something valuable in return: personal information.

In the wake of the NSA scandal and Facebook photo ownership issues, Americans are concerned that their private information is not private at all. But is anonymity the answer?

That time I tried to go anonymous

They say that the first step to anonymity is clearing your cookies and browser history, easy enough. A few clicks later, I was feeling a little freer, like a rebel to the system reclaiming my independence.

Then I opened Facebook.

If you’ve ever tried deleting an active Facebook account, you’ll know that it is hard. Not only in figuring out how to actually do it (where on earth is the disable button?), but in emotional acceptance that you are about to cut yourself off from modern communication. I looked at my friends’ albums; it would take hours to download the pictures I wanted to hold onto. My message history too, held a lot of important conversations. And all those upcoming events – how could I keep up with all of those changing times and locations?

Without having made any step toward erasing my digital footprint, I quietly closed the browser.

The reality is that going anonymous is a hassle, if not impossible. If you are reading this, there’s a good chance your life exists at least partly online. After all, grandma’s on email, your boss is on LinkedIn, and your childhood friend keeps a charming Twitter account. Online anonymity on any level means a sacrifice in connection and convenience.

Is it possible to maintain security while still keeping a digital presence?

The paradox of private information

Google Maps

We hate the idea of giving out private data, yet we do it all the time. We give our home addresses to sign up for store loyalty cards. We give our emails to download e-books. We give map apps our real-time location. Why do we fret over giving personal information to browsers, but give it practically without qualm to others?

One answer is intention. We know why these entities are requesting information and what it will be used for. A store wants to send coupons; a map app needs a location to give accurate directions. We understand that these entities need the information in order to give us a good experience, which in turn will make them a profit. Our society is built on profit, and we’re comfortable with it.

Linda Holmes is an entertainment and culture writer for NPR. “In a sense, we're most comfortable with the profit motive as a reason to collect information,” she writes, “Amazon or Apple might know all about you, but the thing they're most likely to do with that in practice, so far, is try to sell you stuff.”

So it’s not profit we’re afraid of. And it’s not being identified.

It’s lack of control.

Quick case study: Google Glass

A few days ago, the coveted Google Glass became available to anyone who is willing to dish out $1,500. The device interacts with the real world to provide activity- and location-based information and assistance. More controversially, it has a tiny camera that can be used to film whatever the wearer sees. Unfortunately, the product already has a poor reputation. Its capabilities mean that privacy of anyone near it is uncertain. Google Glass has already been banned in several locations, and 72% of Americans say privacy is a big concern regarding the device.

Google Glass, like any other discreet camera, removes individual control over private information and how it’s used.

How to collect information ethically and effectively

There are three factors that determine whether or not a user will feel comfortable offering personal information:

  1. How the information is collected (Choice).
  2. How the information will be used (Knowledge of Intent).
  3. What will be given in return (Benefit).

This means that:

…if the information is collected without implicit or explicit consent,

…if the reason for collecting the information is unclear,

…or if there is no advantage in offering the information,

users will take measures to protect their privacy.

This model can be applied to any situation that handles personal data. For example, in 2012, the EU instituted a policy that required all websites to request consent before attaching cookies. While this is not a law in the US, it is a powerful practice that can help instill user confidence. A simple info banner on the top of the page (like this one) can make the experience opt-in (Choice), clarify why cookies are used (Knowledge of Intent), and explain how cookies improve the browsing experience (Benefit).

Or, say you’re offering a free e-book download with an email sign-up. The Choice and Benefit are clear. To increase opt-ins, offer Knowledge of Intent by stating that the email will be not be shared with third parties or receive spam messages.

The desire for anonymity is the desire for safety in a world where a person can be immediately located, identified, and contacted. By making data collection clear and worthwhile, you can build trust in your audience while building your email list.

What are the best ways to increase opt-ins? Share your thoughts below.

Higher Education In 2020 - Marketing To Non-Traditional Students

Download Whitepaper