Are You Paying More Attention to Your Privacy?


Edward Snowden via video conference at SxSW

Who knows you’re here right now? I’ll tell you. Google analytics, Livefyre and Twitter. They may not know exactly who you are, but they know something about you. At least your IP address. Does that matter to you?

If you were to visit Toys “R” Us, you’d find 40 trackers following you. Chances are that Toys “R” Us doesn’t even know that. I learned from looking at Ghostery, which lets you decide who follows you around online.

Privacy is suddenly on everyone’s radar. It took Edward Snowden and PRISM to call our attention to what we already knew but somehow dismissed. We learned that the government, whom we didn’t authorize, along with Google and Facebook, whom we did, know everything about us. And we reveal a lot. Where we’ve been, whom we’ve been with, how long we were there.

You share more than you know

We may think some of our information is private, but it may not be. You don’t want to share your home phone number with Facebook? Guess what? They know it. It’s in your friends’ contacts and he or she may have neglected to protect it.

Think you’re anonymous so it doesn’t matter? Perhaps. But your metadata gives away more than you imagine. And if someone knows how, they can even access your Twitter stamp, potentially discovering, as Barton Gellman explained at SxSW, enough to send you scampering to adjust your location settings.

This morning Nick Bilton had a piece in the New York Times reminding readers to check their settings. Chances are you have allowed way more companies access to your Facebook stream and Twitter account than you even remember. Perhaps it’s time to clean things up.

“Oh great,” you say. “One more thing I have to learn about in this age of responsibility.” Well, yeah. To me this is just another in a long line of trends that have emerged in light of the new economy and our ability to rely on technology.

Privacy is the new personal finance

It was only a half generation ago that none of us needed to know anything about personal finance. There were these things called pensions. And social security, which actually lived up to its name. Now we’re all investors whether we want to be or not.

Next came healthcare. That friendly doctor who had the time to guide us through our care and decisions now leaves much of the work up to us. We have to research, learn, advocate. Same goes for our kids’ education.

So perhaps privacy comes next. Time to figure out who knows what about us and how to exert some control.

This is, of course, a great opportunity for brands and companies, too. Some simple thoughts. If you are a digital platform that practices end to end encryption, promote the fact. If you’re among the companies that just made recent changes, share that, too.

When it comes to basic privacy settings change the default from private first; let users choose what to share. Don’t take the Facebook approach and wait to be criticized before addressing the issue. And consider making it even more clear what your friends information and settings might reveal about you. Never dawned on me how much my friends contact list might say about me.

If you resist sharing data with government agencies, emphasize that. So far the phone companies and mobile firms don’t have a very good record. And if you store user data, stop keeping it indefinitely.

If you are a social startup, think about a Freemium model that relies on consumers paying for your service rather than on an ad model. Google and Facebook can’t change as their entire business models are based on tracking you. Yes it’s offer up better, more useful goods and services, and yes they have done much lately to assure privacy for all users, but their business model is their business model. Nothing wrong with it per se, just that there are other ways to come at it.

Curious what you think? Are you paying more attention to your settings and who follows you around online?

Cory Doctorow on Snowden’s SxSW appearance.

Authored by:

Edward Boches

I’m Edward Boches, Professor of the Practice of Advertising at Boston University’s College of Communications where I teach advertising creativity with an emphasis on emerging and digital media. I am also the part-time Chief Innovation Officer (formerly Chief Creative Officer and Chief Social Media Officer) at Mullen, an Ad Age A-List agency I’ve helped build and lead for nearly 30 …

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