Privacy matters

Privacy is a hot subject across the Internet lately, and we think it's high time to dissect the mountains of information and pick out what's relevant amidst all the FUD and nonsense out there. You'll see a series here this week about privacy issues and policies, and the best way to kick it all off is to discuss why it matters in the first place.

The fact is, if you use and enjoy Google services you have to give up some privacy to get the most out of them. Things like Gmail and Google Voice don't cost money, but in order to make ads that are lucrative Google mines some of your data and can sell ads targeted at things you like. Advertisers love this, as it keeps big nerdy guys in West Virginia from seeing ads about women's shoes that they will just ignore, and instead shows ads about Android, computer parts, and fishing guides. Google has made this a huge business, and to keep it working, Google needs your data. Google does not sell mail or search -- it sells ads. For the most part, this isn't too intrusive. The data about you is kept in some odd string of computer generated numbers and is only used to display things you are likely to want to see. None of it is sold to anyone else, that would disrupt G's business model. That data is their cash cow. 

We trust Google to do the right thing with our personal information, and for the most part they have done so. But Google isn't the only game in town that's collecting data about you. Other ad networks, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and your cell carrier collect a good bit of information as well. We want to trust the big players, and don't think Facebook or Apple will sell your data away to some spammer (or worse), but when we get to the lower tier, where ad networks and smaller companies collect and store your information, things get a little muddy. If these can't be trusted (and we're not saying they can't) why is it important?

Imagine how you would feel if you lost your Android phone and didn't have it password locked. I could find it at Five Guys, open it up and look through everything. Besides the horrible things I could do with your pictures and accounts, I'd also have access to your contacts, your Internet history, your search history, and message archives. Even if you have nothing to hide, you wouldn't want me rifling through all that data. When apps and services have the same access, it's the same thing. I do not want the ad company that is being used in my favorite Android game to look through my Internet history. They would be bored, and find nothing incriminating, but I still don't want it to happen. Nor do I want some rogue app developer to steal that data and send it off to China. It's my data, and I want to know it's being treated properly. When I imagine it happening to my daughter, I get a little angry. Thankfully, those types of scenarios are few and far between. But they do happen

Data collection isn't inherently evil. It's a standard practice in today's digital world, and we've come to terms with it in some ways. It does need to be done correctly and handled securely, though. That's where the real issue lies -- we know the data is being collected, so can we trust those doing the collecting? That's a question each of us has to answer for ourselves -- we just want to spark the conversation. 

Look for plenty more on security and privacy coming up this week.