See-sawing between convenience and privacy

February 17, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 17, 2014

Last week, I considered Kevin Drum’s complaint about Google leveraging its access to his web searches in order to send him a targeted email advertisement.

Since writing that post, I’ve given the topic a little more consideration. Specifically, I spent some time trying to sum up my message in a pithy fashion.

I came up with this formula: You can have lots of convenience or you can have lots of privacy online, but you can’t have both.

Drum’s issue seemed to stem from the fact that, while he was signed into his Google account, he was using Google in the same browser (but not in a private browser tab) to do web searches. By remaining signed in, as I presume he did, Drum had nigh-instant access to his Gmail and Google Drive.

As I wrote the other day, I’m typically not signed into my Google account when I’m on the web. (I use Apple’s Mail program for most of my email thissing and thatting.) Mail is an OK email client, as such programs are called, but it doesn’t seem to have very good control over spam.

I do many of my web searches in my computer’s web browser — Safari, usually. Since I’m not generally signed into my Google account, I can’t easily retrieve past searches. (Granted, this is not something that I often want or need to do.) Overall, this strikes me as a reasonable tradeoff between convenience and privacy. 

Still, I wonder how valid my proposed formula really is.

Mind you, I’m not desperate to keep secrets — people generally aren’t interested in anything I have done or am doing, and I’m not engaged in any behavior that I need to keep a secret. So although I think widespread government (read: NSA) surveillance of phone and Internet communications is a horrendous thing for society, and I’m not eager for anyone in government to have a lot of information on what I do online, I’m not worried about the direct consequences such surveillance might have on me personally.

That’s basically the same attitude that I have toward corporate surveillance: I don’t want businesses to have too many details about me or my activities, but I’m not worried about anything specific happening to me because of data collection and analysis. 

I am worried about hackers getting hold of my information to use for fraudulent purposes — that is, identity theft. But I don’t take any particular steps to guard against it, other than having rather complicated passwords for my Internet accounts.

But back to my proposed formula: You can have lots of convenience or you can have lots of privacy online, but you can’t have both. This holds true if electronic convenience and privacy can be manipulated like a see-saw — if having lots of one automatically results in little of the other, but if it’s also possible to strike a balance in which one has some of each commodity.

Still, not everything works that way. Some transitions are sharp and sudden. Perhaps it’s only possible to have significant online privacy if one takes laborious steps to protect oneself; anything short of major security measures results in little privacy, regardless of how much convenience one has.

I don’t know exactly where the truth lies. I suspect this is a topic into which I’ll be delving more in the future.

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