10 reasons why online privacy is overrated

Facebook has been disabling a number of privacy settings and rewriting privacy policy at a very fast rate. Google has been accused by Microsoft that they mine data. The US government has been on the news for months that they have been busy, through NSA and other agencies including local police, for spying on social media users. That US government has however gone too far by spying on private conversations on emails and phones.

Then people have been outraged. A number of social media users have become scared and lost trust on the Internet. That’s not good for anyone. The world as it is needs everyone to be connected as the next thing will be to connect none human items.

As one person become more and more accustomed to being online and especially on social media, the more and more he/she feels comfortable to share confidential information online. A person like me will prefer to save some of the most important documents on the cloud (emails and other cloud services like DropBox). Reasons are very simple, I can no longer trust that my computer is able to permanently store those critical documents permanently as computers are prone to crushes, malware attacks, and accidental deletion. The second reason is ease of access. It is not once or twice that I have been saved by the Internet after forgetting to carry with me that crucial document for a presentation, only to retrieve it from my email just in time.

As you can see the more we save critical documents online the more we want to be sure that the documents are safe. But the news that government agencies alongside the bad guys who have managed to steal passwords makes us question the credibility of online privacy. Should we be scared?

Although total privacy is critical to individual users, there is a downside to guaranteeing a hundred percent privacy. There is this Internet within the the Internet that has somehow guaranteed online users 100% privacy for  a number of years called Tor Network. Tor Network works such that when a user sends information to a destination, the destination receives the info without knowing the origin. It uses layers of encryptions that conceal the content of the message in transit in addition to concealing the originator of the message. Given the anonymity it gives to users, illegal weapon and drug dealers such as the Silk Road have been able to secretly and securely transact their businesses online for long.

But thanks to the ability of the NSA and the FBI to Spy on the Internet including the Tor network, the Silk Road bad guys and their ilk have been caught and arrested. These types of privacy vs security paradigms that complicates the debate on privacy and spying are not of my concern today. I’m concerned about the privacy surrounding social media accounts.

As social media users we have been enabled not only to interact with people we care about and create new connections including widening our networks but also been enabled to easily and instantaneously obtain relevant news updates, interact with activities, games, groups, and pages that interest us, and see ads that target our interests. Since social media is a platform for sharing and interacting, I do treat it as a public forum. As the adage goes, nothing is secret unless shared by oneself so we do not expect secret info to be shared on social media profiles and status updates; yet some still do.

So when I hear that people are complaining about Google and Facebook collecting private information I always wonder what are these private information they are talking about. Is liking Kachwanya.com Facebook Page or clicking on a link shared by us any private? Why don’t you want Google to know that you visited xxx.com so that you can receive suggestions for related content in the future?

There are those things that I have personally longed for that I wish someone could have “gathered” to send me the appropriate suggestions. For years ever since I completed primary school I have searched for Across the Bridge by Mwangi Gicheru to reread Hail Jail, the house for all tale to no avail; only if Facebook could know that that’s the search I’ve painstakingly done in the last few years it could have sent me an ad of an online book store.

It is in the same line of reasoning that Gene Marks, a contributor on Forbes, gave us the 10 reasons why he wants you to have his personal data. Top in his list is that he find it difficult to get TV content that is of interest to him. If smart TVs like LG can gather his viewing habits and send him programmes suggestions based on his personal viewing preferences, won’t he be happy?

Then my description above about targeted ads comes second. He says, ” I hate those ads where people are buying new Lexus’ for their family members as Christmas gifts.  Who does this?  Not me.  And probably not 99.99% of the rest of the country.  So please don’t show me that ad.  Find out what you want about me and only show me ads for stuff that I’m really interested in.  Like beer.  And cuddly stuffed animals (oops…maybe that was a little too private).  And if you’re going to put on a car ad keep it at the Honda level, OK?” I agree with him.

Then there are the issues surrounding suggestions related to purchases. You walk into a bookstore, buy a book by Mwangi Gicheru then the bookstore sends you coupons on new books related to the one you bought. This reminds me of a story told by Cisco during the Information Security and Public Key Infrastructure. The story is about a well built middle aged man who walks into Target, makes himself comfortable and demands to talk with the manager. The manager obliges and asks him, “how can I help you sir?” The man bangs a number of coupons on the table and shouts to the manager, “there’s the problem”. “I don’t understand” responds the manager, “what’s wrong with the coupons?” “They are coupons promoting baby wear to my sixteen old daughter, are you encouraging teenage girls to get pregnant?”

The manager apologizes for Target’s mistake and begs the man to forgive him and his team. The man goes back home but a week later the manager calls him to apologize again. The man tells the manager, “Actually sir I’m the one who is supposed to apologize. I have since learnt that my daughter is in fact pregnant”. Target was able to learn, from the sixteen year old girl’s shopping habits, that she was pregnant and were able to send her coupons on baby items that she will need once she gives birth.

Then Gene talks about ease of access to the web. Personally I have asked my browser to remember my passwords (don’t do this in a computer that’s not yours). Whenever I open the browser it automatically logs me into my email accounts, social media accounts and other accounts that need password access. Some people have gone ahead to allow browsers and websites to store credit card information to make it easier for them to make purchases. The risk here is that your credit card information and login credentials may get into the wrong hands. Gene says, “please don’t give me that story about how insecure my credit card info is – wasn’t that you who blindly gave your credit card to that heroin-addict-waiter on Saturday night after your meal?  Ever wonder why he took so long coming back with the receipt?”.

Gene’s fifth reason is on security matters. Nations need to gather intel. Enough said. His sixth reason is on health matters. With enough health history information online akin to what Obamacare intends to achieve, Doctors won’t need to ask a lot of questions regarding people’s medical history. How many times do you throw away your hospital booklets? If we had medical history in some centralized database accessible by any doctor, hospitals wont’ need to print and sell those medical history books to patients. This would play a great part in saving the environment and a small part in reducing medical costs.

Businesses also need data to grow. Anticipating customer’s shopping trends or knowing the size of staff needed to manage a project is key to managing sales. For businesses to be able to anticipate consumption trend, they need big data. Big data only comes from customers who share the so called “personal information”.

Finally social media has the ups on making news friends, improved travel experience and number 10 is easier payment. All these need people to share personal information and the only way for such personal information to help them is if they are available publicly.

Let’s therefore not succumb to the call of making our online content private as it is true that online privacy is overrated but remember to be careful on what you share online.

Odipo Riaga1827 Posts

Film Director, Tech and Business Blogger, Chess Player, and Photographer. God is Science.


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