Is your private life really that private?
Given a few hours, you could find out most things about anyone with a simple Google search.
Name. Birthday. Family. Job. Best friend. Pet’s name. Car model. Address. Weekend routine. Interests.
And that’s just the public-facing side of your data.
By the time you’re done, you might know more about that person than they do…and would have all the ammunition you’d need if you ever wanted to extort or blackmail them…
And the scary thing? The same could be done to you…
Here in New Zealand, nearly one in three Kiwis are a victim of fraud…and losses amount to over $500 million each year.
And that’s just what has been reported…
While the government tries to regulate it…most of the data is available because you put it there.
It’s called your ‘digital footprint’.
That time you commented on a NZ Herald article about Winston Peters — now the world knows your political leaning.
That time you posted a selfie at the gym — now anyone knows where you go to work out and when.
That time you were tagged in a picture from the 2014 office Christmas party — now everyone knows where you work.
Even a picture of your cat sprawled over your couch — with ‘metadata’, anyone can see the GPS location of where you took the picture…your home address.
You are a wealth of information…a continuous beacon of data…and it’s all coming together online to paint a scarily accurate picture of you.
But here’s the question — is the uphill battle to regain your privacy worth the fight?
For most, the answer is a resounding no.
People like using Google, their GPS, a digital camera, credit cards, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
These products and services are convenient…and make our lives easier.
You could try cutting out everything in your life that records personal data…but you’d end up homesteading off-grid in a cabin in Siberia.
Instead, I’d suggest that the landscape has changed…that it’s no longer a question of if you’re giving up your privacy. Rather, what are you getting in return for your information?
For example, if you google ‘How to change a high-beam bulb on a 2008 Toyota Hilux’…within a few hours, you’ll start seeing ads from your local car-parts store for 2008 Toyota Hilux high-beam bulbs.
You may feel that it’s an invasion of privacy, but at the same time, you’re getting relevant ads that match what you need. To me, that’s a benefit…so I’ll happily keep Googling away.
Or, as an Amazon fanboy, if I search for saltwater trolling lures, I’ll soon see suggested items like squid jigs, 80lb nylon fishing line or baitcaster reels. They’ve used my search data to provide a custom offering appropriate to my interests.
Again, I see that as a benefit.
Because in the past, before digital footprints, you saw ads for whatever product bought the ad space. It was a complete shot in the dark on whether it was applicable to you.
You had the same odds of seeing an ad for nylon fishing line as you did for nylon pantyhose.
Today, it’s highly personalised…and therefore highly relevant. No need to look through a whole catalogue — you’re provided with your most relevant items right away.
The most common trade you’re making is that of your information for a service or product.
If you sign up for Facebook…you give up your personal details in return for access to the social network. Your information for access to the service.
Now, this might sound a bit overwhelming, but you’ve got to realise — you’ve been trading your personal information for stuff even before the Internet age.
Have you ever noticed that some steakhouses have a fishbowl near the register where you can drop in your business card for a chance to win something?
You’re giving up your name, business, and contact details in return for a chance at a prize. A trade.
Or when you fill out a survey. You’re giving away your personal opinion, often for the potential of the company improving its service in the future.
Or if you’re at the florist and you pick out a calla lily…a savvy florist would remember that and point you right to the lilies the next time you pop in. That’s an elemental trade of your buying habits for future personalised service and potentially higher sales.
Generally, it means we’re getting a better experience and better service…
While all this may sound good, I’ll be quick to point out that there’s a big massive risk to our current trajectory…
The formation of bubbles — or living in a vacuum.
When you only see things that you like, or hear from people that you agree with, or get ads for products belonging to your current passions…you’ve created a happy, well-curated bubble.
You’re not seeing anything that could challenge your beliefs or introduce you to a new idea.
In essence, you’re narrowing your perspective.
And the consequences of this are becoming evident even today…
When Donald Trump won, many liberals were shocked. They had no idea that over half of all Americans supported his platform. Why? Because their personalised digital experience only fed them liberal commentary…and they ended up believing that what they were seeing reflected the real world.
We, of course, know that wasn’t true.
Look at Brexit. Same thing.
Or even the Great Financial Crisis. Most people, even financial experts, were caught completely unaware. Their personalised worlds preached only one message — that the markets had nowhere to go but up.
But that didn’t reflect reality…and it ended up being extremely costly.
A quick example — in the world of horticulture, we’re seeing a general shift towards indoor farms. These indoor grow spaces can be highly efficient, even more efficient than the outside world. The perfect amount of light. No bugs. Expertly measured nutrients for each plant.
But gardeners working in these farms quickly discovered that the plants could become fragile and frail if they weren’t given some resistance. So they installed fans to blow against the plants, strengthening the stems. They’d bend the branches to build scar tissue, allowing the plant to support more fruit. They’d prune the leaves so that more could grow back.
In a perfect bubble, the plants would wither…but with a bit of resistance, they could thrive.
Today, in our world of open data and personalised experiences, are we poised to thrive?
Or are we withering away?
Editor, Money Morning New Zealand