Monday, February 15, 2010

Don't Do Anything You Would Not Want Your Mother To Know About

Last time I wrote about government not being the one to protect your privacy. Now it is time to look at business as the guardian of your privacy.

The critical element, the one piece you should take away from this article, is that businesses are not here to help or protect you, they are here to make money any way they can. Businesses do not have a moral compass, they have a financial one. If they can make money at it, and the ramifications of getting caught are less than the financial benefit of the action, a business will probably take the action. It's a cost-benefit analysis, and that is all it is. Any business that claims they don't do something because it is not the right thing to do, because then they would not be a good corporate citizen, has done the analysis and determined that the financial impact of the action is too great.

But business climates change with the net result being that the business you trusted can suddenly turn on you. Witness Google, the company with whom mantra “First, do not wrong” is associated. Now, when the money is in linking people together, the new catch phrase is “If you don't want anyone to know, don't do it.” So if you've trusted Google with your address book, your bookmarks, your documents and your email, you have to start asking, what can they mine from that? What can they deduce that you haven't told your mother yet?

Consider the company that you do not directly interact with, like Omniture, Double Click, and AdBrite, who track your movement across the internet. How much information do they have about you, what sites you visit, who you buy from, what advertisements you click on. How much misinformation do they have about you? What can they deduce from your online actions that is just plain wrong?

What restrictions are placed on any of the data that these giant companies collect? The only restrictions are the restrictions placed by government, and then the only restrictions that are effective are the restrictions where the price for getting caught is higher than the benefit derived from the action. Remember it is a cost-benefit analysis.

So as the lowly consumer, as a natural person, what can you do to protect yourself from the behemoths of industry? There are two courses, first is to work with your government to limit what may be done with collected personal data. This puts me in the strange position of relying on the entities that I reproached in my last article. However, the reality is that only the legal system has the ability to direct the actions of legal persons with no moral compass, and the legal system is created and constrained by the government.

The second, and most effective means to protect your data, is to educate yourself. Learn how to enable all the privacy settings on all the system that you use. Keeping in mind that many of those systems benefit financially when you share more information, so they have an incentive to make it difficult to keep your data private.

I suppose there is a third option: Don't do anything you would not want your mother to know about.

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