Sharing our Private Parts

Imagine you’re at a dinner party with close friends and someone asks about your yearly salary. Or maybe they ask about your age. Or weight. Or pant size. Maybe they’re really forward and ask about your health history or private fears. Or your secret desires. Even though the party involves close friends, I think most people would see these types of conversations as invasions of our privacy.  We want to keep certain information private, even from our dearest friends and family. Many of us have been socialized to not even discuss these topics in public and have been taught from an early age that certain information should only be shared with caution.

Despite this socialization, many of us are sharing loads of private information with total strangers. Every time we use an Internet browser or an online service, we share some personal data. While the educational and health information collected by schools and hospitals cannot be shared without an individual’s consent (e.g. FERPA, HIPPA), the private information we share through Internet searching and online shopping is not as protected. As we travel around the Internet, tons of information is being collected and used for advertising, online promotions, solicitation emails and so much more. Take a look at Google. Valued as one of the top companies worldwide, Google primarily makes it money through online advertising through its AdWords and AdSense services. While Google offers a host of apps for free to users, these services are ultimately being used to collect more information on users that Google can use to drive further targeted advertising.  Just to be clear, this is big business.  Some experts have valued the “data industry” at nearly $1 trillion annually.  Our private data is the oil of the Internet age.

So, what’s a consumer to do? Each of us is sharing information online, but should we really be worried? In some ways, it comes back to the dinner conversation. How do you feel about total strangers profiting from your personal data? If you’re disturbed by this thought, you should consider installing ad blocking software or examine ways to protect your online data. For instance, Lightbeam, a Firefox add-on, will visually display which sites are tracking you as you navigate different sites.  This can help you make better decisions about the sites you visit and the information you share online.

But there are other options as well.  Consider Our Data, a “data union” being started to assemble online consumers. Rather than just block ads, Our Data works by building a critical mass of consumers who wish to profit from the information that’s being collected. Initially, the service works like traditional ad blocking software. By installing the app on your mobile device, it blocks ads that appear on sites that you visit and limits the information that sites can collect. As more users sign up for the service, however, Our Data has the potential to change some of the power dynamics online.  If millions of users organize into Our Data’s “data union,” sites could negotiate for access to the information and individual users would profit.  It’s kind of a novel approach.  It’s your private information. Shouldn’t you profit from it?

Some of the big companies would argue that consumers’ private information is the cost of a free Internet. We’re able to search for information online freely because companies collect information.  They consider it the price of admission and see ad blocking as detrimental to the work and services they offer.  A recent Wall Street Journal article outlines how companies are even developing anti-ad blocking software to help recoup some of the estimated $25 billion in lost revenues from blocking applications. While the article is intended to showcase how companies are responding to ad blocking, it really demonstrates just how valuable our private data is.

Switching gears a little, I wonder where we’re teaching students these important lessons of digital citizenship and online privacy. I know that many K-12 schools discuss online privacy from social media and cyberbullying perspectives, but are we doing enough to help students understand how valuable their private data is? In collegiate settings, we discuss the professional aspects of students’ online presences but shouldn’t we also be discussing how they can keep their information private? Seems that we need to broaden how we socialize (and educate) about online privacy and the parts we choose to share.

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