We Gave Up Privacy for Convenience Years Ago

(This article originally appeared in Loss Prevention Magazine)

The only surprising thing about Facebook’s recent privacy fiasco is that anyone was actually surprised. Those of us who use social media and other free online services traded our privacy for convenience sometime in the early 2000s. How many of us are there? Out of 330 million Americans walking this Earth, 218 million are Facebook users. The remaining third of the country, while not on Facebook, is on one of the myriad other free sites that are not really free.

It should be said that those calling for the boycott of Facebook are ignoring the fact that this company is neither the first nor the only one that collects personal information about its users for marketing purposes. In 1985, Prodigy and AOL became the first publicly available online service providers. Google was founded in 1998, Myspace in 2003, and Facebook in 2004.

I recall in 1996 when Juno’s online service was founded, they were one of the first to offer free online access and email. In less than a decade, almost all online services became free. I recall my younger self wondering how could they be free. The answer was, of course, that they weren’t—it’s just that we did not pay with cash but with our data to be used to pitch us products and services.

When It’s Free, You’re the Product

Internet advertising was still largely unknown when the first dot-com crash occurred, leaving a high degree of uncertainty around Internet marketing. I, like many others at the time, didn’t have a full understanding of what Juno was doing with my info. I really didn’t think much of it—their service was free, and it worked. Of course, now I know that this was my first experience of giving up privacy for convenience.

I do wish to underline that I used all the services mentioned, and I am not suggesting people should stop. With this article I just hope to provide a bit more insight into how this tradeoff between privacy and convenience occurred and continues to occur.

Google came in the late ’90s, and from the start it was an advertising and data company. Google spent a lot of time mastering the indexing of the web, making it easy to search. At the same time, they became very good at sort of indexing their own users. Even early on, Google was able to tell where and how a product or service would sell. Every time someone searched for something, Google became one data point smarter. When Gmail came out as the first free, full-featured email service, its success was guaranteed. By that time, we all should have learned that nothing was free. Our privacy was the cost.

Google and Gmail use our search information and look for keywords or phrases in what we type, be it in the search box or in the emails we send. No human is reading our emails, of course—it’s an algorithm that looks for certain things. If, for example, you search for cell phone services and then email your significant other about it, Google takes that metadata and stores it. Then if a cell phone company wants to advertise, Google matches them to you. This can be as simple as a banner on a web site you visit or as advanced as changing the order of your search results.

From my perspective, this is helpful. If you use Google’s Personal Assistant, it can tell you how to get to the airport and when you should leave. On the backend, it is using that information to tailor ads for you. For most people, this by itself is not a major privacy concern. But the question is, what if Google lost control of that data or sold it to a third party? The answer, sadly, just came from Facebook.

When social media became mainstream, everyone thought it was for kids. But today, as I mentioned, two thirds of Americans are on Facebook alone, meaning it and companies like it have a huge repository of our data. And the data got out, and was misused, and Mark Zuckerberg spent two days sweating in front of angry Congress members. Technically, Facebook didn’t do anything wrong—it was the third-party company that may have misused Facebook’s database. But it was a big deal, of course, because this incident may have impacted the elections. Could this have been prevented? It certainly didn’t help that Facebook’s terms of service are complicated even for the most well-educated attorney.

Simple Ways to Protect Your Privacy

I personally use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family, while recognizing a few hidden dangers. One that isn’t often talked about is identity theft. Think about all the questions you get asked to verify that you are you when trying to log into your bank or credit card account. Things like birthday, place of birth, mother’s maiden name, favorite sport, first car—all this info is likely right in your Facebook profile and timeline, down to your favorite vacation spot and where you met your spouse. So be careful what details you share publicly. It is pretty easy to make some of that information private and still enjoy the benefits of Facebook. The next time you reset a password or call your credit company, think about which answers to the security questions are on your Facebook profile.

Another thing to remember is that any service that uses your location could pose a risk. A recent study showed that the use of location data helped burglars in high-end break-ins. A good rule of thumb is to shut off location services if you’re not using them. And speaking of the rules of thumb, here are a few others to keep you and your data safe:

  • Personal information like your birthday, address, email, phone, and maiden name should be private or restricted to close friends.
  • Use a separate email for social media. Create a free email account just for this purpose, and don’t use it for banking or personal and business communications.
  • Open social media accounts in your name even if you’re not going to use them. Social impersonation, when someone pretends to be you, happens in the professional world. By opening accounts under your name, you can limit your exposure to this.
  • Do not post anything you wouldn’t want to say in court.

I hope this article was useful in explaining how social media and other online services can use your data. For many of us, the customized shopping experience, location information, and custom discounts are worth it. Just be safe with your information, and do your best to read the terms. And remember—nothing is free.


Tom’s column regularly appears on every issue of LP Magazine. To subscribe to the printed version of the magazine and enjoy other great content visit losspreventionmedia.com