Thursday, January 13, 2011

Who's watching you

There is a very interesting article in the January issue of Scientific American about personal data privacy on the Internet. The main issue is who is watching you. This could be welcome by some, as illustrated by the graphic below.

A picture is worth a thousand words. It shows that some people are happy to advertise themselves on the Internet. The Internet is a billboard saying Hi folks, that's me; most suitable for those who are eager for a presence in the public eyes which otherwise does not.

But not everyone does so. Most of us are deeply concerned that our personal data privacy is being violated as we spend more time on the Internet. When Gmail first came out with almost unlimited mail storage, people noticed that small advertisements were displayed along the side of the mail. As the advertisements could be related to the mail, it turned out that Gmail would scan the content of the mail to locate keywords for the matching of advertisements. This notion of scanning of private mail created a panic for a while.

There are more examples of our personal data being used for specific purposes. The more time we spend online, the more often we are offered convenience in exchange for our privacy. Park n Shop's MoneyBack card is tracking what we are buying and eating. greets us by name and remembers what we have bought. Facebook has amassed the largest database of personal information in human history. Credit cards leave a trail of your purchases. Phone companies keep a record of who you’ve been calling.

Other than some sensitive data such as medical history and financial records, privacy fears have always been more of an emotional reaction than a rational one. In the online world, much of it is simply fear of the unknown, of what’s new. In time, as the unknown becomes familiar, each new wave of online-privacy terror seems to fade away.

There is a gap in conception on personal data between the younger and older generations. Nowadays, the purpose of the new age online services is to broadcast personal information. It is a modern way of connection between people. Personal information is no longer something you would hide, but rather something you would use to get to know more people.

But isn't that means some aspects of your privacy are lost? The author says it aptly "The fear you feel may be real, but the chances of someone actually looking up the boring details of your life are reassuringly small. As with fear of flying, shark attacks or lightning, your gut may not be getting realistic data from your brain."

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