The debate over cyber privacy

Like most things in life, there are two sides to "personalization" on the web. In case you don't realize this, each time you googled for something while you were logged into gmail at the same time, Google kept track of your search. Not just that, it actually tracks which search results and links you click, how long you spent there before hitting the back button to return to the search screen. Google knows what you did each summer. This sounds creepy, right?

However, is this a bad thing, always? The short answer is that "it depends" (spoken like a true consultant!). It depends on what you consider a bad thing. I do admit, though, that being tracked "always" does send a shiver down my spine. If you think you are immune, (or you don't have a gmail account), don't flatter yourself. Unless you log out of Facebook each time you are done browsing, you will see a message on a lot of websites who you haven't "Like"-d yet. Usually, it will say this: "1,337 like this page - be the first of your friends" or it will show five or six of your friends and strongly suggest that you should join the club. What do you expect - Facebook doesn't know which websites you have been browsing?

One thing that tends to come up often when we start talking about internet privacy is, "So what?". Meaning, what exactly can someone do with this information? The answer is a lot of things, the biggest of which is targeted advertising. If you happened to click on a particular pair of shoes on and hit the back button, you might see that same pair of shoes following you around on various websites. The lack of privacy can also mean a lot of other things. For example, some website might know that your teenage daughter is pregnant way before you do simply based on internet browsing history.

On the other hand, it is useful as well. Facebook does this to some extent, for example, by looking at which friends you "Like" or comment upon most, tries to prioritize updates from those friends. It will also show you ads for Nike shoes if you happened to update your status as "I love running". Google can improve your search results if it knows that you are going to look at the more recent news items than older results and could bring them on top. Google adsense is of course the flip side of the story - playing a similar role.

So how much sharing is good enough? And how do you make sure you are sharing only so much? The answer to the first question is relative to each person. For example, if you need to enable your not-so-tech-savvy aunt to find the result she is looking for on the first page of a Google search, it is a good idea to let her remain logged in. It can help you and me as well, if for example your searches are typically related to the medical domain then customized results would be very useful. The answer to the second question is trickier - and there isn't a definitive answer. My recommendation is to remain on the conservative side - people far smarter than you and I have developed algorithms and "computer stuff" that can connect the dots about you in ways you are not even aware of.

Some of the privacy you have to give up anyway, whenever you use "services" such as Facebook or Google. We live in a connected world, where our digital footprint is inevitably and undeniably linked to our offline identities. You cannot fight it; instead you have to let it flow and embrace it. Like most things in life, you are worth far more than you think, and the sooner you realize the potential the better.


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