Tim Berners-Lee created the web in 1989. Twenty-seven years later, he’s asking for a reinvention. The web has made life easier, but it has also introduced challenges and ethical questions pertaining to personal data, access to information and privacy. Berners-Lee laments that the web has morphed into a surveillance network filled with corporate hackers and government spooks with the tools to troll your every keystroke and mine your personal data.
Cue Microsoft’s acquisition of LinkedIn, a merger that unites two corporate internet behemoths that own or have a direct line to massive amounts of our personal and professional information. The leading cloud company and the leading professional network now have access to the majority of our online lives, potentially creating the first single source for data on individual professionals. To many, this feels like the exact opposite of Berners-Lee’s plea for decentralization.
How much further can we go down this road before crossing the line between convenience and forfeiting privacy completely?
What is your personal data worth?
Some are saying the Microsoft acquisition is purely about the data — $26.2 billion worth of data to be exact ($60 for each of the 433 million members). The two companies have framed the acquisition as a win for their users, heralding it as an integration between productivity suite and business networking platform to form the paragon of productivity.
The question is: Who is controlling how our sensitive personal information is being used and shared? Who should own this responsibility?
Ideally, the answer would be the consumers who use these platforms, along with the companies that own and have access to their data. However, the recent epidemic of privacy breaches has made it difficult to trust these data giants.
Where is the line between the bliss of extreme convenience and the sacrifice of privacy?
Consumers should be wary of the distinction between free sites like Google and Facebook versus product and service providers such as Apple. Apple creates revenue through selling hardware and services, so there’s no immediate need to monetize consumer data. The Facebooks and LinkedIns of the world are more prone to exploit personal data to create revenue because they don’t provide product, or at least not on the same scale as Apple. In short, the dissolution of the need to create revenue by using consumer data makes Apple the more trustworthy business model.
You can still have it all: convenience and privacy
Many consumers are hesitant to give up the convenience of on-demand information. “Just Google it,” right? When you buy or search for something online, you are expressing intent that can and most likely will be used to make recommendations or provide relevant search results. This is a great support tool for consumers and information seekers.
However, this does not require tracking of the user wherever they go on the internet and stockpiling of personal information ad infinitum.
There are several alternatives to these Google-style data-gobblers. Search engines like Qwant.com are privacy concerned non-tracking search engines that provide comparable results. Non-tracking search engines do not record your every click, swipe and purchase, keeping your data safe from blind exploitation.
Drawing a line: What’s not there cannot be taken
The convenience of Cortana anticipating the information you need for your next meeting comes at a cost. Where is the line between the bliss of extreme convenience and the sacrifice of privacy?
The current social climate expects, even demands, constant social sharing and the need for an ever-increasing speed and agility in information handling. The gluttony of shared personal information places a responsibility on the sharer that is two-fold:
Check privacy policies to see how much data a company is allowed to store. Ideally it would be a feature of the service to not store everything they get from you.
Don’t store what you don’t need. Data that isn’t there cannot be lost, stolen or taken advantage of.
If we fail to set limits on how much we share and remain ignorant of privacy policies, the web becomes a data free-for-all — a constantly growing pot of personal, private information that serves the needs of entities we have no intention of serving.
The web created endless potential for learning and connecting with others. Unfortunately, it also created a virtual cloak for those who hope to collect and use it for their own gain.
Although the web is distributed, huge amounts of data are amassed by very few companies, re-centralizing it to very few companies owned by very few people. Berners-Lee, a passionate supporter of decentralization, touts peer-to-peer services that store data with the person who owns the information, not with a singular company. Products like ownCloud, mailbox.org and Protonet allow users to build decentralized services ensuring full ownership and privacy.
Unless data ownership is returned to the user, people will continue to be the product.
The Microsofts of this generation want your data — and they can pay for it.