The voluntary discarding of privacy

When I heard that Futurama was being brought back on the air for new episodes, it was a very happy day for me.  Futurama is one of cartoons I have watched that is actually still funny (Simpsons?  Nope.  South Park?  It was for a long time but recently has been very hit and miss, much to my chagrin).  So to my delight last night, I caught an episode and proceeded to have several laugh-out-loud moments.

The episode centered around the Mom Company’s release of the eyePhone, so-named because the phone is inserted into somebody’s eye which then projects a 3-dimensional image a couple of inches in front of the user’s eyes, their own personal connection to the Internet.  One of the apps for the eyePhone is the Twitcher app, wherein the user can send Twits (a pun on Twitter), which are short communiqués for a Twitcher to alert their followers about various goings-on in their lives.  The whole episode demonstrates just how interconnected everyone is.  Of course, one of the sub-plots is that Mom has put a piece of malware into the Twitcher app such that when someone reaches 1 million followers, everyone turns into a zombie (which I laughed out loud when I saw that) and goes to purchase the next version of the eyePhone – the eyePhone 2.0.  “Idiots”, smirks Mom.

One of the insightful commentaries that Mom makes is that of the voluntary disclosure of information that people make on their eyePhone and Twitter apps.  Mom remarks “I used to use things like spy satellites, hidden cameras, and  secret microphones to keep track of everyone.  Now they do it all of their own free will!”  In fact, Mom makes a very profound point.  Today, with all of the social media applications (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), people are disclosing more and more of their personal information without regard to keeping it secret.  What do people surrender by releasing all of this information?

For one, they are allowing private companies, and public governments, easier access to building dossiers on them to more accurately target them for advertising.  By figuring out your interests and who you associate with, these companies can better serve you by showing you things that you might be interested in that you might not have otherwise thought of.  This is an advantage because if you willingly decide to purchase something, you might think to yourself that such an action was useful to you.  The drawback is that ads are being targeted to you and you may not have the self-control to avoid the impulse to buy, and you might not want to have ads served up to you.  It gets annoying.  And who knows what these companies are doing with your information anyhow.  Are they selling it to companies whose intent is not quite so benign?  When your information is disclosed like this, you are opening yourself up for unintended consequences.

Even if you don’t reveal information, who you associate with can still be useful.  How much do your friends reveal?  If you’re in the same age range, an advertiser can still guess what you might be interested in based upon the age ranges of your friends and family.  We already know what various demographics gravitate towards; for example, 65+ people can be expected to take more of an interest in health care products.  If I have a lot of stock traders as friends, then I can be sure to get served up a lot of ads for books on trading, or trading software, or trading seminars.  So you see, intelligent advertising doesn’t necessarily need your information to be disclosed, they can get it indirectly by making best guesses about what you probably are interested in based upon what your friends are interested in.  If I have a lot of friends who are interested in politics, then there’s a decent chance that I am as well.  Should I get served ads by the Democratic or Republican National Committees?

If we choose to reveal more information than we realize, and someone uses that information, what right do we have to complain?  Should we complain?  Or do we chalk it up to accepting it as a side effect of social networking?


Skip to main content