Pondering privacy, Part 1: We’re being exploited and spied on, and that sucks

I’ll admit it: I’m very conflicted on the topic of privacy.

On the one hand, I’m offended by companies such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and other web companies that rely on our data to turn a profit and constantly push the bounds of our trust. I’m really offended by the NSA’s apparent decision that it operates beyond the reach of any law.

On the the other hand, maybe everyone should just tone the moral outrage down a bit. After all, we’re the cheapskates who can’t bear the thought of actually paying for web services and freely give our data in exchange. And besides, the chances that any human being inside Google, Facebook, the NSA or anywhere else actually knows your name without good reason is slim to none.

This weekend I’m going to try to suss out my thoughts in the point-counterpoint style. Today I’ll lay out the reasons why I think we should be worried about the state of affairs when it comes to the mountains of digital data we’re producing and sharing. Tomorrow I’ll explain why we should just chill out. Somewhere in the middle, I hope I make some sense.

Point: Privacy is a joke and we’re at the mercy of our data overlords

There’s a popular (borderline cliche, really) saying among privacy advocates that when the product is free, users are the the product. As much as I loathe the saying, though, it has never been truer. Everything we do is collected and analyzed by someone, and it’s all in the name of putting advertisers in front of us. We are the product that advertisers are buying; the more they know before paying, the happier they are.

A prime example made the media rounds earlier this week, regarding a Facebook research paper detailing how it’s is able to predict fairly accurately whether or not users in relationships with each other are going to stay together. As much as I admire the data science behind this research, it’s kind of offensive that Facebook would use our data to calculate such personal things. I don’t recall signing up for the service to serve as a guinea pig for sociological research — research that Facebook will ultimately use to make money.

Or take social search like what Google is rolling out and Microsoft already does via a Facebook partnership. All of a sudden, the information you thought you were sharing on a social network is now part of someone else’s day-to-day search experience. Or take the new LinkedIn’s new Intro app for iOS.

From the Facebook paper.

From the Facebook paper: Our breakups turned into functions.

Give them an inch …

This slow, steady expansion of how companies use our data is what really bothers me. It seems not so different from how an emotionally abusive boyfriend or a pimp might take advantage of someone to further their own needs. First we get hooked on the free service because it’s useful, and before we know it all our photos and contacts are there and getting them out would just be a pain.

And then — bam! — we’re not going anywhere. Slowly but surely, the expansion starts. Social search, sponsored stories, data analysis that skirts the line between product-improving and privacy-infringing. Or it’s the new products: “Hey, you should try our new messaging application.” “Our new social network is great … and you can import all those mail contacts!”

In the end, every new product is really about collecting more data of a different type. Facebook wants the intent data search can provide, Google and Microsoft want a social graph, LinkedIn wants to know who you know outside of LinkedIn, Yahoo wants — well, it wants something (maybe our photos). The products might actually be downright useful (I use the heck out of some of them), but in the end the companies just want to know more about what we do, where we go and who we know so they can paint a clearer picture of us to sell more ads.

Then there are the labyrinth of privacy settings, terms of service and privacy policies that make it nigh impossible to actually manage how services use our data or to understand what they might do with it. Not that it would matter anyhow, because even if everything was crystal clear, users only have so much control. Sure, we can manage what other people see, but the company’s rights are all take-it-or-leave it terms. We all know we’re not in any position to leave it.

And, frankly, understanding the full scope of what data is collected and how it’s used is so complicated at this point that many users would probably agree to anything to save themselves the time of trying to make sense of it all.

Who’s going to rein it in? Not you, me or the government

And what about the NSA, you ask? What is there to say? Our government apparently wants nothing more than to spy on every living human on the planet, and it has found an ideal avenue thanks to the digitization of our communications. Constitutional law hasn’t kept up with technological innovation, and the NSA is taking full advantage of it to grab whatever it can without a search warrant or sometimes so much as even asking the company holding the data to hand it over.

Some of its activities appear to break the law, until you realize that the agency is as close to being above the law as is possible and no one really has the guts to change that.

The tie that binds all this data collection, analysis and profiteering is that there’s precious little we can really expect to change any of it. Maybe because we don’t really want it to. It’s the fact that these services are free that make them so great. In many cases it’s their extensive data collection that also makes them so useful. And if you think Gmail and Skype and web search are great, just wait until we have connected homes and self-driving cars.

Companies like Google and Facebook — and litany of other web and mobile apps they’ve spawned — really are changing the ways in which we learn, communicate, consume and generally experience our world. In some cases — especially in Google’s case — they’re doing a whole lot more. That’s also what makes them so desirable to a rogue government agency that no one really seems to have the guts to control.

For most consumers — myself included — there’s really no turning back. We’ve already given our service providers so many inches we’re approaching a mile. What’s one more? We might not like the thoughts of strangers seeing our personal details, companies betting on whether someone will break our hearts or federal agents reading our email, but unless we’re willing to lose all those Facebook photos or go back to encyclopedias and snail mail we don’t really have a choice.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Juergen Faelchle.