Dealing with Data Privacy in the Facebook Age

by Tommy Leung on March 28th, 2018

A few years ago I decided to eliminate as many Google products from my personal life as possible.

My default search engine changed to DuckDuckGo.

I moved off of Gmail and paid for private email.

Instead of the Chrome browser I switched to Safari.

I didn’t quit Google. Sometimes DuckDuckGo doesn’t find what I’m looking for and I try on Google. I use Google Suite for business email and collaboration apps. I love Google Firebase. Google Cloud Platform has amazing services.

Google is a great company. Many of their products are excellent and their ability to reduce costs—sometimes to zero—is a net benefit for human kind.

So why did I reduce my use of Google products?

Because free products aren’t without a price. They are just without a price tag.

And that price is data about you. Google knows everything you search for. They may anonymize it for aggregate use but they still have it.

The key issue is that when you don’t pay for a product, you are the product.

Google’s customers are advertisers. Any data that Google has about you is eventually used to tailor advertising to you.

And that isn’t inherently evil. I much prefer ads that matter to me than ads that don’t. Ads aren’t evil. Good ads help us discover solutions to problems we may have.

The difficulty is risk management and cost-benefit. One day Google might become evil.

It is up to each one of us to decide how much information we are willing to share with any single company. How much we trust any single company? How much privacy we are willing to give up for conveniences and cost savings?

These are all personal questions with personal answers.

Facebook was recently roiled in a data privacy scandal. Again.

It really shouldn’t be a surprise. The entire premise of Facebook is one of less privacy.

Google, at least, has some services that you can for. In those cases you are the customer. Facebook doesn’t offer a single paid service. Unless you are an advertiser.

On Facebook you are the product. But that doesn’t mean it offers no benefits to you. The network effects are incredibly strong. Being able to see what your friends and family are up to is valuable.

Valuable to you and valuable to anyone who has use for that data.

And sometimes you might not like who ends up using that data. They only way to remedy this problem is to be cognitive of what and how much information you are sharing.

Protesting Facebook or demanding regulations is not a solution. The last thing you want is for businesses and governments to get cozy.

"Relying on the government to protect your privacy is like asking a peeping tom to install your window blinds."

- John Perry Barlow

Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview that he was open to regulations. Of course he is. Facebook is the big dog in the social network industry. Regulations will help keep competitors out.

Facebook makes plenty of money selling your data. They have the largest network and therefore the strongest network effects. These two things feed on each other. Users won’t leave Facebook because of the network and advertisers will continue paying Facebook for access to the data.

The cost of any regulations will be easily absorbed by Facebook. They can think of it as paid protection. An upstart social network will simply never get started because of the regulatory costs.

But regardless of how this shakes out, the person most responsible for your data is you.

Only you can weigh the costs against the benefits.

I have 2 Amazon Alexa devices. I think they are great. Others find it too creepy to have a computer listening to everything they say.

Alexa certainly hears everything since that’s the only way to parse out the wake word but technically it is not sending everything it hears to Amazon. Can that happen? Sure.

And that’s why trust is a key factor.

I would never get a Google Home. I don’t trust Google enough. Amazon’s core business is selling things to you. For Amazon you are the customer. Google’s core business is selling advertising. For Google you are the product.

Amazon has a ton of data on me. I buy nearly everything on Amazon. They can deduce that I'm a pet owner. They know where I live. They know I like country music. Amazon knows more about me than Facebook or Google ever will.

And that's fine. Amazon offers me amazing value. And my shopping at Amazon helps them stay in business. It is a direct and mutually beneficial relationship. No middleman. No slight of hand. No conflicts of interest.

The only other time people may have had less privacy is when we lived in small tribes and the proximity meant other people could see and hear everything. Now we don't even know the names of our neighbors but share everything online.

The world keeps changing and it is our responsibility to adapt as we see fit.

“I don't want to write an autobiography because I would become public property with no privacy left.”

- Stephen Hawking

What's your heuristic for dealing with data privacy? Let me know in the comments below!