Last week, Google followed through on its plan to consolidate its 60 privacy policies into a single approach. Some privacy advocates and regulators are worried that Google will now be able to know and track people like never before. But on the scale of all the bad things that could happen to our privacy, where does Google's change in approach rank? Have we crossed a Rubicon toward the obliteration of personal privacy, or is a new day dawning for more control over our personal data?
There really isn't any universally accepted way to answer this question.
On one extreme are people who tend to see any increase in data collection, sharing, and exposure as a long slide down the slippery slope toward losing our liberty. On the other extreme are people who love the benefits of new technologies enough that they disregard any privacy concern as a non-issue.
The truth has to be somewhere in between. Not all privacy issues are created equal. Some rank only a 1 on the privacy Richter scale -- an unnoticeable tremor that does no damage -- while others rank an unqualified 10 that merit a widespread emergency response. Knowing the difference can help you sort through all the hype and know which privacy news to pay attention to.
What would a privacy Richter scale look like? See if these criteria make sense for you.
Privacy Richter readings 1 to 3
Earthquakes measuring on the lower end of the Richter scale are detected but hardly felt. What is the equivalent for a privacy tremor? These would be privacy events that make the news but pose no lasting harm to individuals or society as a whole.
You've probably experienced some or many of these privacy tremors -- receiving someone else's mail, having someone expose something embarrassing about you to co-workers or friends, or losing your wallet or purse. A privacy Richter 1 or 2 event is a temporary bad turn for you or a handful of people, but nothing systemic.
At the upper end of this category, you might see incidents affecting millions of people but in a minor way. I'd rank the controversies over online-behavioral advertising, consumer tracking and customer data analytics at this level -- a privacy Richter 3. A lot of data is being collected, but it's being used to sell people stuff. They don't have to buy the stuff, and they might actually like the stuff, so it's not clear what harm has been caused or where liberty or dignity has been irreparably lost.
Privacy Richter readings 4 to 7
Earthquakes measuring 4 to 7 on the Richter scale can knock you down, level buildings, and cause real and lasting damage. Privacy events in this range should be taken seriously.