Why do we have so many privacy concerns regarding the internet?

We are provided with news all the time about how Facebook and Google are using our information and violating our privacy. Why is this a new concern that appears to have arisen only in the last decade?

Consider some traditional services: the purchase of goods at a shop, the transfer of money at a bank, the usage of a television channel. They all involve the customer paying the provider (shop, bank, cable provider) an amount of money for the service or good. There is clarity on who the customer is, i.e. the person who receives the good or the service.

How about someone who uses Gmail? He pays no money to Google for the service. Likewise a user of Facebook. How do these non-traditional service providers make their money? They serve advertisements to the users and get money from the companies that wish to advertise. Users are not the customers of Google and Facebook, advertisers are.

The money tends to come in depending on the number of clicks on the advertisements. Why would a user click on an advertisement? To state the obvious: an advertisement is more likely to be clicked if it is relevant to the user. Here is the interesting question: How do Google and Facebook find out what is relevant to their users? They collect data about their users: their browsing habits, the things that they search for, people who are connected to them and therefore are likely to have similar browsing habits…  This is where the privacy concerns come in. The catchy quote goes thus: “If you are not paying for it, you are the product.”

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook criticised this model of doing business – an easy task, since his company gets its money up-front from the user: “I’m speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information,” said Cook. “They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that’s wrong.”

Take a look at this advertisement by Mozilla.

Imagine someone following you around and noting down everything that you are doing: where you are, how long you remain, what you looked at, what you wore. Some of the technology sites that we are addicted to are the digital equivalents of the creepy guy in the video doing exactly that. In real life we may get a restraining order trying to keep this person away from us. In our online lives, we have invited him into our homes.

More posts on this subject will follow.