Is Privacy Even Possible Anymore?


By Samuel Greengard

It's difficult to get through a day without encountering an article, news story or discussion about electronic privacy. Google reports that nearly 4.2 billion references to the subject appear on the Web.

What's remarkable isn't that we're struggling to make sense of the topic. I'm not sure even the world's foremost experts fully understand all the technology in a big picture connect-the-dots sort of way. It's more intriguing to ponder how we think about the subject.

Increasingly, we're willing to fork over private information in exchange for discounts and freebies. If we choose to join a loyalty program or fill in a form, we accept that the company will track our buying habits or know our preferences. But if we don't opt in, it's likely that we'll find the concept of assembling and aggregating data downright creepy.

Type posts into Facebook and watch ads mirror things you're discussing. Click through the Web and watch highly personal ads appear thanks to swarms of bugs, beacons and other nefarious tools used for collecting data.

It's incredible to think that someone can plant software on a computer or smartphone without permission and track what we say and do. It's akin to companies putting video cameras in a house to watch people cook, clean and move about.

Things are only going to get creepier as advertisers and others perfect systems for understanding behavior. As John Nicholson, a Washington, D.C., attorney who specializes in Internet law points out: "It's getting to the point where it's possible to know what a person is going to do before they know what they are going to do."

An abstraction? Hardly. In February, Forbes reported that a father found out his daughter was pregnant before she knew she was pregnant. Target assembled the profile after examining her buying patterns, and the father saw ads targeting her for products.

Let's face it, the genie is out of the proverbial bottle. But a good starting point would be to create some rules and boundaries.

Advertisers and data collectors must be forced to focus on an opt-in approach and perhaps even pay consumers for their data. Instead of treating personal information as a sales transaction and owning it forever, an European Union-centric approach that lets companies license specific data only for specific uses is in order.

Otherwise, don't be surprised if you wake up one day and find that your boss or neighbor knows about your need for Xanax or thinks you like clothing-optional swinger resorts because an ad about these products and services arrived in your inbox or on your Facebook page.