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Should We Really Have Any Expectations of Privacy Online?

written by: •edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 9/12/2013

Recent statements by Google over their Gmail service have raised many an eyebrow of concerned parties. Free email services like Gmail use personal information gleaned from emails in order to display targeted advertising. But are we really all that concerned? And should we be?

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    Should We Have Any Expectations of Privacy Online? Google recently filed a motion to have a lawsuit dismissed stating that "a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties." It's true that so-called free email services actually scan emails in order to deliver targeted ad displays. Most people give up some of their privacy rights every day (knowingly or unknowingly) in order to enjoy the convenience of free, tailored online services. Can there really be any privacy online? Or should we all get used to having our information constantly read, scanned, stored and used by machines?

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    Eyes Are Everywhere

    It seems like any time you turn on the TV or visit an internet news site there is always some kind of news about privacy breaches or lawsuits involving privacy. Many of us use the internet every day without really thinking about how much information we are sharing.

    Does this sound familiar to you? While you’re waiting for breakfast, you hop online and check out the news. The website knows that you always check out the local news first so instead of taking you to the World news, it takes you local. Next, you log onto your email account and catch up on the morning’s emails. You send out a few messages and see an ad next to your mail. Oh – cool! Amazon has that new movie you’ve been wanting on sale. You click the ad and browse Amazon for a while.

    If you step back a second and think about what just happened, you’d realize that in order for today’s services to work the way they do, you need to be willing to give up a little bit of your privacy. The news site likely used tracking cookies to store your preferences relating to the section of the site you like to visit first. While reading your email, you were shown a targeted ad – likely based on previous searches you had done.

    Are either of these sites using personally identifiable information? Probably not. They use things like cookies to track certain data on your computer. When you revisit a site, data from that cookie is loaded and the site is customized for you.
    Google

    In the case mentioned above, Google is scanning emails for users of their Gmail service. Google probably shouldn’t have come out and been so blunt when commenting on a user’s expectation of privacy but Google has a point. In order for us to have the services that we do today we need to give up a bit of ourselves to get something out of it. Google’s Gmail is a free service. You can eat up gobs of space and send tons of message through their service all for free. What does Google get in return? They scan your emails and try to give you ads that would pertain to you. You’re getting a solid, reliable service for free and Google is hoping to make some advertising money off of you.

    Obviously other service providers use similar methods to make money on the services they provide for free.

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    Does Anyone Care?

    Does Anyone Care? 

    Although it seems the topic of electronic privacy is a hot one, I wanted to dig in further to see how pervasive the topic really is. I dug into Google Trends available at google.com/trends to see just where privacy ranks. Google Trends captures and analyzes search trends. Records go back to 2004 so you can see in a simple graph how popular a specific search term was over the course of several years.

    Search terms are ranked on a scale from 1 to 100 with 100 being a hot topic and one being relatively obscure. Surprisingly the term ‘privacy’ which scored a ‘100’ out of 100 on the Google scale in 2004 only scores a ‘37’ in August of 2013. Thinking that was a fluke I performed other trends for privacy related terms ‘privacy policy’, ‘google privacy’ and others all returned similar results.

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    So… What’s Happening?

    So why the apparent lack of interest in privacy? I don’t think you can nail it down to a single thing, but I think people who use the internet on a daily basis see the convenience offered to them is worth giving up some of their privacy. It’s partly a matter of better services – I love knowing when Amazon has something from my cart on sale. It’s partly a generational thing. As Generation ‘X’ and ‘Y’ grew up using computers they are more accepting of technology and inherently ‘trust’ the services they are provided.

    What You Can Do

    Realize that any service you sign up for will typically require you to provide some kind of information – whether it’s an email address, your name or phone number. Be sure to read their privacy policy and the End User License Agreement – sometimes shortened to just EULA. Most reputable sites will tell you exactly how the data you submit will be used – if at all. If you care about your privacy, get in a habit of reading these agreements. If you aren’t comfortable reading these agreements you may want to check out the free ‘EULAlyzer’ – an EULA analyzer that helps point out areas of the EULA that affect your privacy. If you don’t agree with an EULA don’t use the service!

    You may not care about your privacy, but you should at least take a look at the agreements you sign. As Google said – you can’t expect to remain entirely private while still using 3rd party services but that doesn’t mean you should ignore them altogether.

References

  • Gmail users have no expectation of privacy - http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-205_162-57598496/google-gmail-users-have-no-expectation-of-privacy/