Maybe, just maybe, users can win the privacy war

A 'silent Big Brother' information state is emerging -- and people are starting to realize the danger and act

Privacy is dead, the captains of Silicon Valley will tell you. They should know -- they're trying to kill it. In the 14 years since Scott McNealy, then CEO of Sun Microsystems, told an NBC interviewer, "You have zero privacy anyway -- get used to it," the big tech stars have been diligently tracking as much about you as possible to sell that information to advertisers, vendors, and even governments. Google and Facebook are particularly notorious about doing this, so much so that they're regularly in hot water with both European and American regulators over their sneaky ways to extract your personal information without your awareness and sell it to others.

It's a good business to be in: Give people free services they enjoy and silently collect as much information as possible to sell. People think they're getting a good deal, but they're not. Instead, with all that information collected, you're being boxed in.

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For example, when you search on Google, the results are tailored to your profile, which sounds nice until you realize two things: One is that you're no longer getting a neutral search, so your results are skewed in a way you're not even aware of. The other is that many of those results are actually paid ads, but not marked as such, so they're not honest results. It'll only get worse with services such as Google Now that build up profiles of you, then steer you to what Google -- and its advertisers -- want you to do based on those profiles and push you down that slippery slope.

The bad economics of "free"

It's an old saw in the media business that Americans hate to spend money but love to give away personal information that can be mined. It's a business model Silicon Valley has embraced with zeal. Europeans are more skittish about giving away personal information -- the memories of government files during the World War years being used to round up of Jews, gays, Gypsies, communists, dissidents, and other "undesirables" of that era are still strong. This is why the European Union has been so vigorous in taking on Google, Facebook, and others over their personal data mining and in setting privacy laws.

The truth is that mining personal information has become a big business because people are too cheap to pay with money. Free email, free cloud storage, free articles, free television, free music, free research, free banking, free calling, and so on are never free. You pay indirectly. For years, you paid through higher prices on what you bought, with those hidden charges used to pay for the ads that were believed to have swayed your business. In some cases, such as the print edition of InfoWorld discontinued in 2007, you provided business data such as title, contact information, and purchasing intent and authority in return for a "free" subscription that you paid by fielding sales calls from advertisers who had a gross notion of what you might buy -- a business model called controlled circulation. (You could also pay for a subscription with money, though few did.)

In the digital world, traditional banner ads have largely fallen by the wayside (they make little money); advertisers want proof that an ad worked, and that means getting users to click and sign up for something à la the old print controlled-circulation model -- providing salable personal information. Silicon Valley startups like Google took that model and applied it to search and all sorts of other new services.

But Silicon Valley amped it up by collecting much more information than what you might have filled out in a subscription form. Dot-coms designed services that track what you do, skimming all sorts of information from you -- what you search, what you email about, who you know, what you join -- so they get enough detailed information about customers to precisely target them or sell them for precise targeting by others.

Many go even further, secretly steering customers to specific services and capturing them into a set of choices where only the house -- the service provider -- wins. Google is a great example, with its search results tailored to its advertisers, not to your search needs. But almost all social media and free online services do it.

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