Privacy: The next premium upgrade?

By Laura Haight
 Originally published by Upstate Business Journal, Greenville, SC, on Jan. 2, 2015

Two interesting stories caught my eye recently: The first analyzed the technology businesses that would attract a lot of venture capital investment in 2015; the second outlined the results of a Pew Research Center study of privacy.

What’s the connection? Many of the top trends are technology applications that will further erode privacy, not behind our backs but with our tacit consent. And although the Pew respondents (experts were invited to respond in depth) were divided about whether there would be significant and/or successful efforts to regain privacy rights and protections, many of the analysts who read and wrote about the survey saw a different outcome.

My favorite and best bet for what really could happen: Privacy becomes a paid upgrade.

If that seems far fetched, consider the things we already do - every OK button we click, every license agreement we accept without reading -  that dilute our privacy rights. Lured by incredible new options, cool new toys and functionality, we readily accept that less privacy is the price of tech cool.

That’s good for tech companies developing applications for beacons and Big Data -- two of the major attractors for capital investment this year, according to analysts.

Beacons enable location-based services. An example most of us can relate to is that your mobile Starbucks card pops up on your smartphone when you are near a Starbucks store. Enhanced implementations might enable stores to remember you when you get near the entrance in the mall and deliver you a special coupon on something similar to your last purchase. OMG! That is soooo cool, right?

Well, sure. And it's data that makes that possible. Data that is being collected about you with every move you make. I bought a pair of readers online, now every website I go to shows me ads for reading glasses. Your shopping preferences are captured based on sites you visit in your browser. Your interests are cataloged by spending patterns tracked and stored by credit card companies: golf, books, computer software. With GPS enabled on your phone and the permissions we grant to various applications to track us, a pretty complete picture of where we go, what we do and what we like emerges.

"Lack of concern about privacy stems from complacency because most people’s life experiences teach them that revealing their private information allows commercial (and public) organisations to make their lives easier (by targeting their needs), whereas the detrimental cases tend to be very serious but relatively rare,” wrote Bob Briscoe, a researcher in networking and infrastructure for British Telecom, in response to the Pew survey.

Another respondent sees a developing cultural divide with the privacy advocates on one side and the consumer convenience crowd on the other. With big data and consumer technology seen as key elements to economic growth, will we see efforts to reign in technology and preserve privacy? Or will privacy be redefined and potentially reserved for those with the resources to pay a premium for it.

While the consumer applications of Big Data and Beacons sound benign, even useful, the view through the other side of the looking glass is less clear. Who will have access to that data about me, about the movies I stream and the books I read? How will the information on the websites I read or the comments I post on political discussions be used? What if they're subpeonaed? What if they're hacked?

Is your personal information totally out of your control already? Not totally. You can turn on a preference called "Do Not Track" in your browser to prevent your browsing history from being collected (It's icognito if you use Chrome). You can check your application security settings on your smartphone regularly to make sure you're not sharing more than you intended. And you can take a breath and think before just clicking OK every time an application wants some additional control or access.

Mostly, it is about paying attention, being present and taking part in the conversation. The loss of a right to privacy - to feel that most of the things you do are free from prying eyes - can't happen without our consent - actual or implied.

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Need help? Laura Haight is the president of Portfolio (www.portfoliosc.com), which works with small businesses to incorporate and manage emerging media and technology into business operations.