Privacy in the face of inconvenience

The other day I was having a chat with some friends who had come round for dinner.

They told me about their forthcoming trip to a resort area in Mexico. We discussed it for a bit then moved on to other things.

The next day I started to receive online ads for that part of Mexico.

We hadn’t emailed about it, hadn’t searched for it (I don’t use Google anyway. The search site I do use, Duck Duck Go, isn’t supposed to pass your search information on to any third parties) and hadn’t made a call about it (not that companies listening in on your calls is OK).

I then tweeted about it and got a surprisingly large response, including some advice and a link to an article that seemed to think it was more down to some kind of coincidence or a second-hand reading of my friends’ emails that then connected to me (even though my friends and I communicate via text; of course those communications could be available to someone nefarious).

The digital community is spying on literally every single thing we do (for advertising purposes, lest we forget). And yes, you were probably aware of such a thing, but were you aware of how utterly brazen the whole situation is? This link shows a video where they boast in a very cosy way about a level of spying that would make a KGB agent blush.

So far so creepy, but what amazes me is the level of complicity that comes from almost all of us. If a man came up to you in the street and told you he had details on every website you’ve ever visited, everything you’ve ever bought, what you earn, your sexual preferences, what your boss thinks of you, your medical history, where you’ve been at any time of the day or night and who you were with, you’d probably find it deeply disturbing. But that’s 100% the case, and it’s not just one man, it’s lots and lots of organisations, many of whom are susceptible to hacking from many more, some of whom might not have your best interests at heart.

And people are now choosing to have Alexas and Echos placed in their homes even thought they’re clearly going to listen to every single thing they say and report back to Amazon and Google (and whoever can hack Amazon and Google), and the government of any country (they can definitely hack Amazon and Google).

I feel as if I’m writing some kind of tin foil hat screed about conspiracy theories, but this is all entirely real, verifiable and not even hidden.


I think perhaps the reason why nothing much is being done about it comes down to three things:

  1. ‘I’ve got nothing to hide so why should I care?’. Fine. Send me an email about everything you think of during sex. I’ll stick it up on the blog then tweet out the link to 5000 people.
  2. ‘I can’t really stop using the internet, can I?’. Fair enough. Everything runs through the internet these days, so detaching from it in any way would be a massive arse. And you have now admitted that convenience is more important to you than the small chance that your (supposedly anonymised) information gets used in a way that can harm you. That makes sense, but it still seems like a massive violation of something we held dear relatively recently.
  3. ‘I had no idea this was happening, at least to this extent.’ I think this category applies to over 90% of internet users and neatly proves the truism that ignorance is bliss. The internet companies don’t want you to know about this and you don’t really want to know either. It’s kind of like putting your hand up the U-bend of a toilet: you know something bad is up there and you won’t get much out of finding out what it is, so it’s best to just not think about it, eh?

So keep talking about your rectal prolapse in front of Siri, using Google to search for that exotic Tumblr site you’d never tell your spouse about, and sharing your entire life with Facebook. It’s just easier that way, isn’t it? And who really wants to leave Instagram just because it’s a thinly-veiled information aggregator for the purposes of advertising, disguised as a picture sharing site? Hardly anyone, apparently.

And I get it: I’m on Instagram, slightly on Facebook (I deleted my account recently but returned in a half-arsed manner to stay in touch with people whose email addresses I didn’t have) and fully engaged on the rest of the internet. But I can’t help wondering how this trade-off slipped so easily into billions of lives.

I also can’t help wondering if a grim and pointy reckoning is on the way. Will we regret selling so much of ourselves for so little?

Edgar Allan Poe said, ‘“It is by no means an irrational fancy that, in a future existence, we shall look upon what we think our present existence, as a dream.”

Dreams come in many shapes and sizes…