Public VS. Private in the Virtual World

soapboxIt’s Friday, Apple still hasn’t approved the new version of eWallet, and I want to post something new on the blog, so I’m going to drag out the soapbox and talk about privacy issues. As I said in my Pinchgate post, I’m very sensitive to electronic privacy issues. I’m perfectly happy to share information, but I want to be part of the process. I want an application to ask before it starts sending my secrets off to some distant server for compilation and analysis. At the same time, tracking web usage is a universal aspect of the internet, so where does that fall in the privacy debate?

If you’re interested in this sort of thing, read on after the jump to hear me toss out some ideas!

The Internet = A Public Space

If you don’t already know it, websites track a ton of information about the people that visit them. Unique visitors, how long they linger on individual pages, what files they download, how they got to the site, or even where they go when they are finished. And it isn’t necessarily the person who owns the site that is doing this – these are all things a typical internet provider will track for the people who use them to host a website.

In general, folks aren’t too worried about this. My theory on why, is that people view the internet as “public space.” It’s like a park, a grocery store, or a government building. When you “walk around” the web, you have an expectation that someone might be watching you. Do you care? Most people don’t. So what if I appear on WalMart’s security tapes? What do I care if a traffic camera picks up my car driving down the street.

The internet is the same way. I have no greater expectation of privacy browsing books on Amazon than I do hanging out and thumbing through books in Borders. I’m out in public – someone is probably watching. Even on “secure” sites like banks, there is a real world analogy. Although I expect the transactions I make at the bank to remain secret, at a real bank I’m driving up to the bank out in the open, walking down the sidewalk and in the door in full view, and talking to a teller out loud (others might hear). There is a limit to privacy at a real world bank, and a bank website is much the same.

Software and My Computers = Private Space

On the other hand there is software (and the computers it runs on). People have an expectation of privacy here. I would no sooner expect a game I purchased to send personal information about me back to the developer than I would expect my refrigerator to send information about what food I eat, how much beer I drink, or what non-food items I store in my fridge back to Whirlpool. If my fridge actually DID this, I’d be pretty freaked out and probably get a new fridge.

The same with my computer. Although I access the internet through a browser from my computer, the space of my computer itself is my personal space. I’ll accept a CC camera at a grocery store, but I won’t accept one in my living room.

There are, however, real world exceptions. I might allow a Nielsen ratings box to be installed on my television, or fill out a survey for a marketing company about my buying habits.  But there is a difference…

Real World Permitted Spying vs Virtual Permitted Spying

The first key difference between the sort of private life spying that goes on in the real world (Nielsen box/survey) is that in the real world, retailers and marketers ALWAYS ask permission first. A handy fact about the real world is that they pretty much have to – I’m not going to accidentally fill out a survey. Also, there are laws that punish people that spy on us without our explicit permission.

A second difference is that real world retailers and marketers almost always give me something back for my effort. A freebie, coupons, or some other compensation for sharing my information. Take those stupid grocery store cards as an example. If you use one, they track your buying habits, but in exchange you get lower prices and targeted coupons at checkout. It’s worth it to me.

An Unfortunate Confusion

The problem is that software developers are getting confused. Now to be fair, some folks just don’t care, but I know a lot of software developers and I really believe that it is more an issue of confusion than purposeful wrongdoing.

First, they’re mixing up private space and public space. Just because we will accept a traffic camera, doesn’t mean we’ll let the government put a camera in our living room. The same is true for the internet. Just because we’ll accept data tracking on a website, doesn’t mean we’re okay with it in our favorite piece of software. And just like real life, although the technology is the same (a CC camera is a CC camera no matter where you put it) whether you are tracking web access or software use, this doesn’t mean we will accept that technology in all places.

Second, they are taking without giving. Traditionally, in our market based economy, we get when we give. If you want me to fill out a survey about my laundry habits, you’d better send me a little box of detergent. Or if the information is being given with no direct compensation, it had better be optional. I don’t mind volunteering, but if it isn’t a choice I’m no longer a volunteer.

Third, just because you can do something (and do it easily in many cases), doesn’t mean it’s okay to do it. I cansneak over to my neighbors house in the morning and peek in the window while they are getting ready for work. This doesn’t mean its okay. Software is powerful – we can do a LOT of things with it, but as Ben Parker once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Wrapping It Up

If you managed to read this whole post, thanks! I’ll take that as a compliment. 🙂 In the meantime, encourage your favorite software developer to ask before they spy. I’m sure many of us are happy to chip in with information that might make our favorite products better, but there is a very clear line between our private space and our private space and developers need to make sure that they don’t cross it.

One thought on “Public VS. Private in the Virtual World

  1. Andy Morales

    “Just because we’ll accept data tracking on a website, doesn’t mean we’re okay with it in our favorite piece of software.”

    I’m not a software developer but I would agree with you on this and possibly try to understand this a bit more. I notice that with many of my Microsoft products they are always giving me pop ups saying that they want permission to send data to them. Mostly on errors, what it is sending I’m never really sure. It lets you see the technical problem before it is sent though.

    Some programs don’t even ask and I get firewall warnings about whether I trust the program and whether to let data be sent. That’s confusing!! I’m not even sure what it is sending about me. So is it safe to do my banking on the same computer that runs all these programs that want to send info. Not sure anymore. But what choice do I have? I can’t go and buy an extra computer to do banking on and never use it for anything else…what a waste of money.

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