Internet and Information Privacy: The End of Innocence?

As most of us probably still remember, there was a time and age, not so long ago, when we felt that browsing the internet was like walking around while being invisible. Even when we started performing more formal tasks over the web, such as shopping or banking, we felt relatively safe that our data and personal information were secure and private – known only to systems and databases that need to identify users in order to allow access or complete a transaction.

Nowadays, it seems as if everyone is sharing and everyone is watching. Many of us have voluntarily opted to share private information through large scale social networks, allow access to our email accounts by search engines, permit cookies that personalize advertisements and other leads, and so the list continues. One of course can debate how voluntary the shift has been. Can a student at HBS these days not have a Facebook account? Can they really prevent classmates or friends from posting pictures of them even if they themselves don’t have a social media account? Can someone change their Gmail address or stop using YouTube to avoid Google’s ever expanding and ever-growing-in-sophistication data mining attempts? Can a user forego visiting certain websites due to their use of cookies? As cloud computing and cloud storage grows in popularity, will an internet user be able to opt out of using such services? What about when these services start integrating with existing products and/or services such users have accustomed themselves with?┬áLocation tracking, contacts and calendar sharing over different platforms, social networks integrated with numerous applications, personalized search, data mining regarding internet usage habits and patterns – these are all ways to gather and process information that constitute our digital footprint. And as more and more of our daily lives pass through the internet, this digital footprint begins to look alarmingly like our actual, real-life selves.

Regulation on the matter is obviously, as with many online-related issues, ongoing and varies wildly among countries – something of a paradox given that the online world seems to be almost unbound by national borders. And while the debate seems to center, if at all, around consumer protection issues driven primarily by concerns regarding data mining used for purposes of targeted/personal advertising, few seem to be worried about other parties potentially interested in our personal information and data. Numerous governments around the globe can gain access relatively easily, to one degree or another, to such data. And while efforts to prevent terrorism, uphold national security, and protect the public feel like noble causes, who can credibly guarantee that our personal information is not being misused by people, agencies, and organizations that have access to it? Where does one draw the line and how do we ensure that such a line cannot be crossed?

Sadly, noone can guarantee online privacy and personal information protection. Nor do internet users seem to care as much these days. Yet it was a mere 80 years ago when a democratically elected party rose to power in Germany and quite soon after that started using personal data gathered by census and processed by technology available at the time to ultimately commit some of the most appalling crimes in recent human history. And, more recently, while Shi Tao’s predicaments do not feel quite so widespread or disturbing a phenomenon, yet his story serves as a reminder of how weak private corporations can ultimately become in the face of political / government pressure, such as the one that the Chinese government officials seem to have exerted on Yahoo. Besides, no matter how much trust one is willing to show towards a government, no one can really claim they can protect themselves from the occasional rogue government employee. After all, worse government scandals than that are certainly not unheard of.

For the moment, online users appear to be feeling relatively safe and seem to be riding the wave of apparent convenience as well as perhaps fashion when it comes to sharing information over the web. While this trend seems unstoppable, it takes only a few, if not one, major events to shake peoples’ faith and peace of mind. If and when such a time comes across, when people collectively decide to start pushing towards a reversal of this trend, the online economy will have to radically change in order to re-adapt. Whole products, services, even business models have been built around the processing and use of data that could potentially be deemed inaccessible or become unavailable altogether. This would certainly be a much different world for the online economy and its participants.

Until then, we can all cherish the fact that we now can, on top of sharing our location with GPS-level accuracy and storing our contacts and messages in a cloud, scan our fingerprints on our smartphones to unlock them!