How you invade your own privacy

Infosys study shows consumers globally are far more relaxed about sharing their private data than we knew -- and than they should be

There's a select few of my friends who are really serious about their privacy. They all use strong passwords for everything, many don't bother with online banking or use bill pay services, most don't use eBay or Amazon, and most don't have social media accounts or, if they do, they are very careful about what they post and very cautious about who they friend. They never use their home address online, they're cautious about giving out their phone number, and so on.

In other words, despite being tech-savvy and computer literate, they are consciously trying to stay out of the world that many of them are creating.

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[EFF: Trust Twitter to protect your privacy]

And this kind of rather extreme self-protection is understandable: They, better than most, know how easily privacy is lost and how, once lost, it can't be regained. That said, in the 21st century, is trying to stay off the radar really possible?

The answer is no, unless -- and this is a big hurdle to clear -- you are willing to give up the thousands of conveniences and opportunities that the digital world seduces us with. If you wanted to be not so much off the grid as off the matrix but still be in the United States, you'd have to be willing to live in a cabin way out in the woods somewhere, have no utilities, spend only cash, grow most of your own food, never, ever, ever get sick and, if you were really serious, break the law by not filing your taxes and being generally unaccountable as a citizen.

If that appeals to you then the best of luck to you because it would be, in modern America, very, very difficult to pull it off, and the way things are going, within a few years it will become truly impossible.

Why? Because as the recent NSA intelligence gathering revelations demonstrated, if there's some data that might have any bearing whatsoever on national security, homeland security, law enforcement, or taxation, then there's some raving bureaucrat somewhere who wants to pigeonhole said data just in case. Once those little nuggets of data have been collected, collated, and corralled you are in the matrix, er, system forever.

What these friends of mine are doing is perversely contrarian to the direction our global culture is taking. A majority of people worldwide no longer really seem to care about privacy (of course, "no longer" rather assumes they really understood or cared about privacy in the first place). How do I know that we collectively no longer care?

In May this year business consulting firm Infosys conducted a survey of 5,000 digitally savvy consumers (1,000 each in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Australia) aged 18 to 69 to establish their criteria for sharing their personal data and what they thought about ways their data might be used.

While it is generally accepted that Europeans are much more concerned about privacy than North Americans, the survey showed that the gap is arguably smaller than supposed. For example, when making an online purchase 57 percent of German users are willing to share data while 75 percent of the French, and 79 percent of the Brits are OK with it. At 74 percent, the Aussies are closer to the French, but the winners and still champions at giving away the goods are ... you guessed it, the Americans (at 88 percent).

Surprisingly, consumers seem to trust their banks: 56 percent of Germans, 62 percent of the French, 75 percent of Australians, and 78 percent of Brits said they were OK with sharing their personal data with their bank. Again, the Yanks win out with 83 percent willing to divulge their private details to their banks despite having been well and truly screwed by Wall Street.

The attitude toward banks is particularly surprising given 82 percent of all those surveyed saying they expect their bank to mine or review their purchases to detect anomalies from identity theft. This is interesting because to do this kind of analysis requires significant insight into patterns of purchasing -- the who, what, when and, most importantly, why of people's spending habits. So how will those consumers feel when their wives show them an automated letter or email warning them of an unusual jewelry purchase that said wife, who isn't near a birthday or other occasion that warrants said bling, hasn't received?

Think that kind of event is unlikely? Then let me remind you of the little PR disaster that Target created for itself when it mined customer data with the goal of identifying and then marketing to women who had recently become pregnant. The company found purchasing patterns that identified these consumers very effectively, but the exercise wound up ratting out a 16-year-old girl who was keeping her pregnancy secret from her family.

This is what's called the mosaic problem. All those scattered bits of data have little meaning or significance in and of themselves, but put together, they paint a detailed picture that is far more revealing than expected or, if it's your data, wanted.

And consumers don't really know what they think about their data being mined to provide a more customized experience: While the survey showed 39 percent considered it to be an invasive practice, the terms helpful, convenient, time-saving and good service scored 35 percent, 33 percent, 32 percent, and 27 percent, respectively, proving that these are sheep that want to get shorn.

What this survey shows us is what I think we know about ourselves -- we're blabbermouths who want to be treated like kings and queens. We just love getting what we want with as little effort as possible, we want it now and we want it cheap.

Sure, it's two bucks more than down the road, but we've got free same-day shipping and we don't have to get out of our pleather-covered Barcalounger and waste good tee-vee watching time to get what we want, so whatcha want to know?

Gibbs is keeping schtum in Ventura, Calif. Open up to him at gearhead@gibbs.com and follow him on Twitter and App.net (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

This story, "How you invade your own privacy" was originally published by NetworkWorld .

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