Is trading convenience for privacy a good deal?

The end of self-regulation is on the horizon. But will users dare to stray from their default settings?
10 May 2019

Facebook has been at the brunt of digital privacy debate. Source: AFP

The greatest trick the world’s biggest tech companies ever pulled was convincing the world that trading convenience for privacy was a good deal.

Tech giants now record every click of a mouse, the swipe of a touchscreen, your geo-location, and even your voice. Our data is then fed back to us in the form of personalized experiences that further fuel our insatiable desire for instant gratification.

However, resistance is beginning to build, and both consumers and regulators are beginning to question the reality behind the headlines. The days of self-regulation are coming to an end for tech companies. With significant changes on the horizon, the usual suspects are desperately attempting to convince the world they are serious about privacy.

The inconvenient truth behind all of the promises is the free services that we enjoy also harvest our data to sell targeted advertising. That’s how they make money. Deep down, we all know that there is no such thing as a free lunch and if you’re not paying for it; you’re the product. But it’s time to address the elephant in the room.

In recent weeks we have heard leaders from Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft all following the increasing familiar narrative around the protection of our privacy. Meaningless soundbites about protecting our privacy do not hide the fact that we are now the product and the shiny tech gadgets we buy actually own us.

For example, Google’s initial success was built on the simplicity of its search home page. For the most part, users are a little lazy when it comes to privacy control and advanced settings buried away in menus. For years we have been informed of privacy settings, but the tech companies knew all along that the majority of users would not drift from the default settings.

Even proactive users will eventually run into problems too. By implementing a privacy settings update, users will unwittingly hit agree and revert settings to a new set of defaults. These are just a few reasons why you won’t hear any of the big tech CEOs revealing the percentage of users that are protecting their privacy.

For example, did you know that Amazon has a recording of every command that you have given Alexa? Every voice command can be found in the settings of the device and played back to you. You can also adjust how ads are targeted to you based on your activity both on and off of the Facebook platform. Once again, most people seldom dare to look under the hood and see how their data is used,

The reality for most people reading this is that a handful of giant tech companies now have more power than governments. In many cases, our devices know the GPS location of everyone in our lives. Online maps can provide a location history of where you like to hang out and where you should or shouldn’t be.

But this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Every item you have ever purchased, your banking details and even your heart rate can be monitored. Nothing is off limits. Before you bring out your tin foil hats, these data points are much more about increasing profits than anything too sinister. Adobe’s mission to make every moment personal and every experience shoppable is a perfect example of why they acquired Magento for US$1.68 billion and the goal every business is chasing.

Do any of us have the right to take the moral ground about privacy? The idea of our data being used as a marketing tool is often greeted with horror. But if it helps us skip the check-in line at a hotel and unlock the door of our room using our smartphone, it’s acceptable. Our rising and often unrealistic expectations are the results of the personalized services that are only possible by harvesting our data.

In one hand we are proving with our wallets that personalization will increase revenue and loyalty, but equally find the concept uncomfortable. Businesses are faced with a challenge of understanding the needs of their customers across every touchpoint and device in real time without appearing creepy.

Words such as privacy trust and transparency are expected as standard, but as consumers, we cannot have it both ways. The removal of spam, irrelevant and generic marketing messages from our lives will come at a price. Whether you think trading your online data to provide personalized experiences is a price worth paying is entirely subjective and this is just the beginning of the problem.

If we walk through any shopping mall anywhere in the world, we decide who and what we reveal about selves. The tech giants all know that regulators are coming, and they need to give their users more transparency around precisely who can and cannot use their data. The debate around trading convenience for privacy might be just getting started, but at least we are finally talking about it.