Picky about Privacy: Why We (sort of) Care

“Privacy” has become a media buzzword over the past few weeks.  The White House released its proposed “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights,” which basically argues that companies that collect personal data should be more transparent and that consumers have  a right to know when and how their personal data is being used.  Google announced that it’s adding a “do not track button” to its browser, Chrome, and rolled out a new Privacy Policy a couple of weeks ago.  All of these developments are being described as a victory for people concerned about how their personal data is being used by online giants like Google and Apple.

Who are these people, exactly — the people who are so concerned about how their data is being used? I realize that they do exist, and start organizations like this one, but I’ve never met someone who was genuinely worried about their online privacy, apart from wanting to keep their social security number and credit card information safe.  And a large portion of what these policies address isn’t financial information, it’s behavioral information: how we browse, sites we visit, items we buy, how we share with friends.

It appears that the everyday internet user isn’t troubled by a lack of privacy, given that they’re willing to share every detail of their life via social media.  We’re happy to share our physical location, via Foursquare and Facebook check-ins.  We’re thrilled to broadcast our personal interests and potential purchases with Pinterest.  We’re eager to tout our political views with Twitter and Huffington Post.  And are we reading the lengthy privacy policies of these social applications?  Probably not.

While marketers want to use our personal information to increase the efficiency of their ads, we’ll cough up that data if it means getting a deal.  Many restaurants, for example, give a discount if you check in with Foursquare or like their Facebook page.  If I can get a couple bucks off of a burrito, I really don’t care if California Tortilla knows that a twenty-eight year old white female that’s interested in feminist politics and  mid-century modern design prefers their vegetarian option.

But people do start to care when their personal data reveals things about them that they don’t want to admit.  You may convince yourself that you’re not addicted to celebrity gossip, but when marketers begin to leverage the amount of time you spend on perezehilton.com to send you targeted Us Weekly ads, instead of, say, ads for The Wall Street Journal, you have to admit that the data doesn’t lie.  Along the same lines, we really do want to keep certain elements of our lives private.  That’s why John Doe is happily checking in to the trendy downtown club, but failing to check in to the free clinic.

We want it both ways.  We want it to be socially acceptable to share intimate details of our lives with the world via social media because we love being voyeurs and crave public approval.  But, here’s the kicker, we want the mediums that we use to share — Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest — to be free.  Pay for Facebook?! Please!  But someone’s gotta pay for those brilliant engineers.  And advertisers’ currency of choice?  Your personal data.