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Privacy in the Digital Age

By Sasha Ganeles, Planner

We vehemently defend the concept of our privacy, yet give it up so easily. The Patriot Act paved the way for patriotism to be equated with the government invading our privacy, and now people joke about the NSA listening in on our phone conversations. We gripe about ‘big data’ listening to us constantly, collecting data on everything from our favorite gossip website to where we’re thinking about taking our next vacation.

Yet we painstakingly record every detail of our lives on social media, where our digital behaviors are sold to the highest bidder, and we invite smart devices into our homes to constantly listen to us. So do we truly have any privacy today? Do we even want it?

Despite how much people bemoan the overbearing reach of data companies and Internet service providers, they are quite willing to give up their information. They’re more likely to share data in the context of safety or medical information, such as sending an emergency signal to police or allowing a device to transmit medical information to health insurance companies. People are even more forthcoming with their data if there is any kind of reward or incentive involved. An MIT study confirmed this phenomenon when the overwhelming majority of the students in the study chose free pizza over protecting their friends’ privacy. Consumers will also share their location for financial gain, such as getting a special coupon from a store.

There are advantages to relinquishing privacy that are more enduring -- and mutually beneficial -- than scoring a slice of pizza. With virtually everyone armed with a livestream-capable smartphone, ordinary citizens can hold law officials more accountable in their actions. With almost half of millennials expected to own voice-activated home assistants by 2020, Alexa and Siri are becoming members of the family. Siri even made her Hollywood debut. And in some cases, this omnipresence can help to save lives by always waiting to be called on to help. And though some claim this attentive status is creepy, it’s important to note that these devices require a 'trigger' word to activate, and so are only listening when wanted.

By sharing their data with brands, customers make it much easier for businesses to curate relevant offers for them. In the long term, this creates a less overwhelming and intrusive advertising experience for the user as well as more success for the brand. In the future, Quartz predicts the advertisements people watch on TV will even be customized to correspond to real-time physiological and emotional data provided by, and transmitted from, consumers’ wearable devices.

Clearly, we’re ready to hand over our privacy -- for the right reasons. Consumer laziness and incentives may play a role, but another reason could be that we don’t feel we have “meaningful choices” when it comes to how service providers handle our personal data. Another point to consider is that social media has made us more lax about surveillance, as we opt to live share our location with Snapchat friends and tag our current location on an Instagram story. But is this a safe road to be going down? What are the implications of a children’s smart toy that records its playmate? With every facet of our lives accounted for digitally, how might a hacker take advantage? If people want to keep their personal lives away from big data, will they have to pay to protect their data? If so, what are the social class implications? Privacy may become a luxury that we can’t afford.