Privacy is important, and we should fight for it. I’ve said that many times. But when Windows 10 launched, I welcomed Cortana despite some concerns from privacy activists. It sounds hypocritical, but it’s an easy disconnect to resolve, once you understand how privacy works as currency. Here’s how I continue to advocate for a safer, privacy-focused Internet and still use these awesome free tools.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
The New Privacy Economy: Your Data in Exchange for Services
It’s no secret that advertising is the juice in the engine of the internet today. Along with advertising, and the economies built on the back of getting ads in front of your face (of which this blog is included,) is the massive data trade that happens behind the scenes. The ability to collect information about you to make sure those ads are relevant and interesting to you — products you might actually like or want to buy — is serious. It’s made blinking banner ads for low-rate loans a thing of the past, replaced with dynamic Amazon ads that show you products you’ve searched for, or related to items you’ve purchased.
After all, personalised ads are, after all, better than random, intrusive, and irrelevant ones, right? But that’s not enough. Getting ads in front of you that you don’t mind seeing is only part of the battle. The rest is convincing you that the information you give up is a small price to pay for those ads, not for any actual service or product delivered.
See that distinction? You’re trading away your privacy for nothing but the right to see relevant ads. And yet, people swallow that logic. They even trot it out as a defence when questioned.
There’s another side to this too — when you block ads completely and blacklist everything, you’re saying “you don’t get anything from me, but I’m going to take everything from you.” It’s similarly problematic, because it encourages the arms race between the companies eager to hoover up your data and the privacy technologies designed to protect you. It’s also the reason your favourite content creators, YouTubers, webcomic authors, and yes, humble bloggers beg you to whitelist them in your ad blocker so they can get paid for the work they do.
Part of the problem is we’ve been conditioned to believe that our data has no value. We’re getting these services “for free.” You’ve heard it before: “Well Facebook/Google/Apple/Microsoft/[insert company] gives it away, so stop complaining.” That limited definition of “free” keeps us from understanding the real exchange we make when we use “free” services. Just because your data seems to have no value (especially when aggregated with others) doesn’t mean it doesn’t. If it were truly worthless, advertisers wouldn’t want it, and they wouldn’t be willing to essentially pay the salaries of developers, bloggers, DBAs, data scientists, “growth hackers,” and PR pros to get it. Keep that in mind the next time you sign up for something that’s “free,” whether it’s that Windows 10 upgrade, the upcoming El Capitan upgrade for OS X, or even something like an email newsletter.
Your Privacy (and Your Data) Is Currency, So Spend It Wisely
In a perfect world, privacy would be an opt-out experience instead of an opt-in one. Put more simply: I wish companies would operate from a position of privacy by default, and only intrude on it when necessary, and after your consent. Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world. Most services say “sign up now for awesome benefits” and (often purposefully) obfuscate the compromises you make when you join the club. In some cases it’s innocuous, like the number of friends or followers you have when you install a new Twitter app. In others, it’s more invasive, like real-time location tracking for a smartphone game, or access to your entire inbox for an anti-spam tool.
But both of those “more invasive” examples that I just mentioned? They’re awesome tools in their own right, and I actually use them both. When Windows 10 came out, many (rightfully) brought up the privacy implications of a desktop operating system that’s always connected, includes a personal assistant that records your voice, and gives itself permission to capture a ton of data and send it home to Microsoft. We discussed similar concerns when OS X Yosemite came out. And Google Now and Siri got the same treatment, after they asked for constant access to our emails, location, and apps, and sending our data back to their parent companies. We were — and are — concerned with how long those companies keep that data, and what else it might be used for.
So how do I live with myself and still happily use Windows 10 on one computer, Yosemite on another, and say “OK Google Now” every time I need to set a reminder? Well, it starts with understanding that “privacy,” and “personal data” are essentially currency in today’s Internet economy. In all of these cases, I’m trading away bits of information for services that I feel give me some return on the value of the information I’m giving up. In short, I’m “buying” Windows 10, “paying for” Google Now, and “subscribing to” Unroll.me. Instead of opening my wallet, I’m paying in information. It’s not a perfect tradeoff, but it’s one I go into with both eyes open.
Make Educated, Intelligent Decisions About How You “Spend”
Now that you understand your privacy is currency, you should spend it where it matters to you. Spend it where you get the most benefit for making the trade, and do it consciously after deciding whether the benefit you’ll get from the exchange is worth it.
In my case, I looked at the privacy issues around Windows 10, checked out what I could turn off and what I couldn’t, and read up on what I could opt out of and what you opted into just by installing the update. There are some features, like broad location access, for example, that I keep turned off. I don’t let apps use my “advertising ID,” and I don’t send logging data back to Microsoft. I use other privacy protecting tools to keep control over my other data. In short, I only trade away the information I feel comfortable trading for the specific features that I actually use — and no more.
I do the same with my Android devices and Google Now. I sign in with accounts i’m comfortable using on a given device (often test accounts, just because I test a lot of devices), but on my daily driver I’m comfortable handing over more access for features that make life easier and help me be productive. In OS X, I don’t care for all the phoning home that Yosemite does, so I avoid the apps and services that do it, and use feature-rich replacements instead (like Alfred, for example, instead of Spotlight.)
All of these things are conscious choices that I had to make based on the balance between productivity and privacy that I wanted. Maybe you’d prefer to go Linux and only use open-source, privacy-focused everything. You’ll have to come up with your own balance, but the important thing is that you don’t just go with the flow and let apathy make those decisions for you. When that happens, we all lose: the companies behind our favourite products assume no one cares and pare back privacy controls. The people who actually need their privacy (activists, whistleblowers, or just normal people who don’t want to give harassers, trolls, or everyone everywhere a window into their lives) have a harder job protecting themselves, and privacy activists have to get more aggressive about bringing tech and government back to their senses.
At this point, you’re probably saying “Well sure, I can do that! I make a decision every time I use Facebook to give some data away in exchange for staying in touch with my friends!” Well, great! But not so fast.
Even So, The Web Needs Your Help
So where does this leave us? Well, we have more control than we might think, and we can make educated decisions about where we spend our information “currency.” Unfortunately, none of this changes the fact that we should still advocate for privacy as the default, not the exception, both in business and in government.
This is why it’s important to re-evaluate your options periodically when you’re too dependent on any one company or service, or as you learn more about their approach to privacy. We should all look for options that improve on the privacy and features of the tools we use. Sometimes a better, more secure option is at our fingertips, but passed over because everyone’s using the big-named alternative. Similarly, you should put your data — and, when you can, your money — where your principles are. Support companies and organisations that respect your privacy, and encourage the companies willing to listen to their users. Avoid, and call out, companies that don’t, and leave services that get greedy without giving you something valuable in return.
Remember, none of this means you can’t use Gmail, as long as you know Google scans your inbox for marketing purposes, and you’re ok with that. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use Windows 10, either. In fact, we think it gives you the right balance of privacy controls for the features it offers, but you have to choose. If we all made those measured, educated decisions, we can nudge the web towards that “privacy by default” ideal.