Online Privacy: We Just Don't Care

Facebook leaked your data (again). Big Brother's watching everyone and everything. And Google is testing a "service" that sounds like you providing them a list of everything you own.

Kevin Casey, Contributor

June 26, 2013

5 Min Read

Maybe Mark Zuckerberg was right when he said, way back in 2010, that people just don't give a you-know-what about their privacy online.

The Facebook founder didn't quite put it that way. But he came close: "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people," Zuckerberg said, soon after Facebook had drawn ire for making changes to its privacy settings.

The subtext, as U.K. newspaper The Guardian said at the time, was clear. It was also a bit of circular reasoning: The popularity of social sites like Facebook means that people no longer expect privacy on social sites like Facebook. "That social norm is just something that has evolved over time," Zuckerberg said.

"Devolved" would have been the better word choice.

Fast-forward to last Friday afternoon at 4:50 ET, when Facebook quietly copped to a previously undiscovered bug that may have publicly exposed the private contact information of 6 million users. The note begins: "At Facebook, we take people’s privacy seriously... ."

The announcement's timing is worth noting. Companies don't share news that they want people to pay attention to just before happy hour on a Friday -- and definitely not on the first day of summer.

The Huffington Post ran a thorough and rather entertaining dissection of Facebook's communications strategy. That strategy appears to have worked: On the grand and growing scale of online data breaches and privacy brouhahas, Facebook's prior episodes among them, this one barely generated a yawn.

[ Would you share information about your belongings with Google? Read Google Mine Wants To Track Your Stuff. ]

That might have something to do with bigger-picture timing: The latest data breach came right on the heels of The Washington Post's report that both the National Security Agency and FBI have direct lines to the servers of nine major internet companies -- Facebook among them. Hey, what's a few million leaked phone numbers and email addresses when the government has unfettered access to just about everything we do online?

Even with the Prism revelations, a funny thing happened: While there was a predictable amount of handwringing and media debate, the general response seemed more like a large collective shrug. In fact, I think that was my actual reaction -- a shrug. It was more unsurprising than unsettling. Hey, waddyagonnado?

Half of Americans actually approve of the practice, according to recent Pew Research polling. There was no mass exodus of users from Facebook, Skype, or any other technology company on the Prism list -- nor Dropbox, which got a "Coming Soon" pass in the story. We didn't all relocate to abandoned industrial parks and go off the grid like Gene Hackman in "Enemy of the State." (That movie and its fictional NSA paranoia came out in 1998, by the way.) We probably didn't even re-check our privacy settings in our favorite online services. We talked about it. Made jokes about it, even. But we seem more fascinated with Edward Snowden's catch-me-if-you-can flight than the actual implications of what he brought to light. We've already gone on about business and lives. Fuggedaboutit.

Is there any virtual line in the sand when it comes to online privacy? Is there any limit to what we'll share "openly and with more people" than ever before, as Zuckerberg put it? It doesn't seem so. A rumor recently surfaced that Google is testing a new service, in the loosest sense of the word, called Google Mine. As InformationWeek's Thomas Claburn noted, Google Mine appears to serve no one but Google. You give Google a list of stuff you own -- and that's it. (OK, it's a bit more than that -- but that's really kind of it.)

I'm a heavy user of a variety of Google services -- a modern serf, according to information security pundit Bruce Schneier's analogy, and a loyal one at that -- but I'm left scratching my head. Why would I ever need Google Mine? Google does not lack for information about me: Email, Internet searches, and so forth. Now I should inventory my house and upload that, too -- while apparently getting nothing in return? (Welcome, burglars!)

Google may have a copy of every email I've sent during the past seven years or so, but at least Gmail gives me, you know, free email. Yet I've no doubt that if Google Mine rolled out tomorrow, thousands upon thousands -- and likely millions -- of people would sign up overnight.

Zuckerberg was onto something, though perhaps not for noble reasons. "Privacy" has evolved to a point of "anything but." Many of us, me included, seem awfully comfortable with the apparent reality that there is absolutely no such thing -- and we continue to dump large troves of personal information online. Even Zuckerberg's self-serving logic in those salad days of 2010 is alarmingly sound in hindsight. We don't care about our privacy on the Internet because we use the Internet.

After all, what's the alternative -- drop Google? I don't think they make paper maps anymore. Disconnect Skype? But then I'd have to actually start paying for phone calls again. Don't use Facebook? Are you kidding me? What else am I supposed to do with these pictures of my kids?

About the Author(s)

Kevin Casey


Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses.

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