Lost Between Ignorance and Paranoia

There are some irrefutable facts. We are watched, all the time and in a thousand different ways.   We are cataloged and labeled, our personal data sliced, read, sold and stored.  That data comes back at us in the form of marketing to us, decisions made about us, and determinations about whether we are law-abiding citizens or threats to the country.

It is also a fact that there is very little that we can do about it.

Privacy is dead and buried. The question is, do we care?

The answer, it seems, is that most of us don’t, until we do.

Today, there is a scale that exists against which we can all be measured.  On one side of the scale is Ignorance – and according to Mashable.com, it is by far the location on the scale where most people are.  These are the folks that live in complete ignorance, utterly unaware of how their data is mined throughout the day with everything they do.  They have no idea of the invisible complexity that surrounds them, and fail to see, for instance, the odd coincidence in how ads on Amazon.com and Facebook seem to match perfectly with what they want.  They are blissfully unaware of just how much the government and giant companies know about them.

On the complete opposite side of this scale is Paranoia – effectively demonstrated in this recent article in The Atlantic.   Those that live on this end of the scale see a hidden malevolence in every click on the keyboard, every website visited, every phone call made, every purchase completed.  They are convinced that not only does the government and big business know everything about them, but that all of that information is used to manipulate every aspect of our lives. They see no benefit in data sharing and data mining and they go to great lengths to cover their trails whenever possible.

But between these two extremes however, lies a range of attitudes including awareness, ambivalence, acceptance, resignation, wariness, concern and fear.   When it comes to privacy, we all reside somewhere on this scale, and the data seems to suggest that the vast majority of us lie somewhere between ignorance and ambivalence.

Earlier this year, John Oliver, on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight” presented a scathing commentary on the state of privacy – and as often happens, sometimes the greatest truths are told through comedy.   One fact that Oliver quoted was that a Pew Research study showed that 46% of Americans were not concerned about government surveillance.   This is completely unsurprising.  In fact, I was actually surprised that figure wasn’t higher.  The study points out that while nearly nine in ten polled had heard about the government surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden, only 34% of those who were aware of those surveillance programs have taken at least one step to hide or shield their information from the government.  The study points out that “17% changed their privacy settings on social media; 15% use social media less often; 15% have avoided certain apps and 13% have uninstalled apps; 14% say they speak more in person instead of communicating online or on the phone; and 13% have avoided using certain terms in online communications.”

Those percentages leave the vast majority of people who were aware of government surveillance in the camp of those who did nothing about it – took no action to shield themselves.  On the scale between ignorant and paranoid – they are decidedly ambivalent.   And ambivalence seems to be the attitude most people adopt – whether it is towards government surveillance or big business data mining.   They are aware that they are being tracked, their behavior used as data to market to them, but they tend to view it either as an unavoidable part of modern life, or in many cases, welcome the “customization” that it provides to their lives.

And yet, there does seem to be a threshold.   John Oliver calls it a line in the sand – and that line, humorously in his piece, is when the government has access to personal pictures of our most intimate parts.  Suddenly, when the invasion of privacy becomes intensely personal, people finally seem to move past ambivalence.

It’s a line that I’ve only recently become aware of (and no, I’m not talking about “private” pictures…).   Until recently, I have been decidedly in the ambivalent camp.  My attitude has been that I have nothing to hide from the government, and if data mining allows companies to know more about me and push me products and experiences that I might enjoy, then so much the better.  I have actively embraced new technologies that learn about me with every word, touch and keystroke, and liberally bought from online sites, well aware of how I was being tracked.  In any case, I’ve always felt that even if I was concerned, there was little that I could do about it.

Today however, circumstance began to push me further up the scale.   With an 81 year-old father suffering from a host of ailments including Alzheimer’s, I was doing some research on the Internet about some of the medicines he is on.   With each search I made, I began to notice changes in the ads and links I was presented on Google, Amazon and Facebook.  Suddenly, I was seeing ads for assisted living, for wills and estate planning, for geriatric supplies.   Without thinking, I had exposed what was a deeply personal and difficult part of my life and now, the internet knew about it and was using this information to predict who I was, what I wanted and how I should be treated.  It was eye opening – and it made me start to think more about what I was sharing.  I felt myself being nudged towards “wary” on the scale.

That wariness led me dig a little deeper into just how much “they” know about me. I heard about one of the leading data aggregation companies – Acxiom, and how they allow you to view the profile that have built about you. After an extensive (free) sign-up process that probably collects even more data about you, you can see exactly what data they have collected about you. You can see for yourself here.

I did it and was surprised to see the data points they had on me – and how accurate some were and yet how inaccurate others were.

When you complete the login process you are presented with a dashboard that looks like this:


As I clicked through each category, I found that it was a combination of clearly public data (how much I paid for my house, yearly taxes, etc), data compiled from my credit report (how many credit cards I have, how many bank accounts) and finally, data garnered from my online activity. It is this last one that interested me the most.   Tracked were things like how many purchases I had made online in the last 7 years, in what categories were the purchases, how old my children were – based on the kinds of things I looked up about them, where I’ve traveled and much more.   As I said – some of it was inaccurate.   According to Acxiom, I’m interested in golf – which I am not in the least tiny bit, but because at some point in the past, I have purchased Golf Gift Certificates for my nephews who do play, Acxiom now thinks I’m a golfer.   There are other inconsistencies and inaccuracies – which demonstrates that data aggregation is not an exact science.

Still I was stunned at the depth of knowledge Acxiom had about me, and shame on me for being stunned. I’m technically literate, well aware of how I am tracked and how my privacy is an illusion, but somehow seeing it all lumped together into a profile was off-putting.

Apparently, I’m not alone.   A recent New York Times article pointed out that “privacy researchers said they are starting to see signs of a backlash. People are beginning to exercise a bit more reserve online or are otherwise engaging in subversive tactics to thwart data miners. Such small acts of defiance might include setting up multiple fake identities, using a virtual private network to shield their browsing behavior and not “liking” anything on Facebook or following anyone on Twitter, making their social networks and preferences harder to track.”

In other words, people don’t care, until they do.  Privacy is a nebulous concept – it’s something we say we value but rarely seem to take the steps to protect it, even when we know it’s being violated.  But when things become personal – when it hits home through a private picture gone public or a personal detail that you’d rather not be marked, marketed and monetized – things begin to change.

Ultimately, the place we all need to be on the scale between Ignorance and Paranoia is a place of awareness.  If we are aware of not only who knows what about us, but also how they know what they know, we can make better decisions about just how much privacy we’re willing to give up.

Bill Margol

Emerging Media Graduate Student

Loyola University

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