04 Mar 2012

What price privacy?

Filed under: Blogroll, IT, Maguffyn, web2.0 — maguffyn @ 14:49 UTC

My last post was written on a Windows Phone and I was wondering what it was going to be like to use and whether or not I’d be able to blog more frequently. Well, I’m still not blessed with vast amounts of free time, but I’ve got time for this one.

There has been quite a lot of coverage over the last week because Google has changed its privacy policy so that your personal information can be shared across all its services. I am not quite sure why people have been so shocked by this- after all even though Picasa, Google Earth and the rest were acquired separately, they are now part of a single company. So why shouldn’t Google be allowed to share the information? As an analogy, if a supermarket chain buys a string of convenience stores and re-brands them; you, as the consumer, benefit from lower prices and a consistent choice of product ranges; they in turn are able to capture your loyalty card profile in all their stores. So why should it be any different for a company that sells information about you?

Well, to me at least, that last point is the critical aspect. How much information do we want other people to know about us? And how much do we want to be involved with the decision? There are good arguments for an organisation that wants to sell advertising space to know a bit about me- after all I am a forty something year old male, so advertisements for female hygiene products are going to be a waste of time, space and bandwidth for all concerned. So it can easily be acknowledged that a little targeting is a good thing. But where should it stop?

Google used to provide a page where you could see what it knew about you- for example it had worked out that I am male, aged between 35 and 45 and interested in technology, mobile phones and a few other things. Google knew that my wife is female, about the same age as me and interested in celebrity gossip. This had all been worked out from our web history. I found this interesting and told a few people about it- not surprisingly it was pretty much spot on for everyone. And although this information had been collected without my explicit knowledge, I could at least see what Google had worked out about me.

And now Google has created a single overall privacy policy and is conducting a charm offensive like no other to convince you and I that we should trust them with our personal information. And to aid in this there is a new Ad Preference Manager where we can explicitly block certain advertisers. This is largely a good thing. I have a mantra that I use in my professional life “explicit by statement, not implicit by omission”- this means that if you are building a system that is going to deliver this functionality but not that, then you should state somewhere that “we will NOT be doing that” instead of just leaving it out. Google are adopting this approach through two methods:

  1. You can explicitly state what interests you have
  2. You can control who you do not wish to see advertising to you (up to a limit of 500 advertisers at least).

However, what one hand gives, the other takes away: it does not appear possible any more to see what Google knows about you. So have they deleted the existing profile? I think not. My best guess is that the old inferred profile will be combined with the new explicit interests and you will hopefully finish up with even more accurately targeted adverts. The question is, do you want this?

The start of this post stated that I had been using a Windows Phone, with an operating system written by Microsoft. Now Microsoft have a huge number of detractors, but as far as I know, they don’t particularly care who I am. They care whether my copy of Windows is Genuine and whether I am using the latest version of Office. But they don’t care about me. Unlike Google. My test of the Windows Phone concluded with the decision that the OS is really nice, the app support is significantly weaker than either iOS (from Apple) or Android (from Google) and the overall price probably somewhere between the two. So you are faced with an interesting choice: it can be argued that Android is the ‘best’ mobile phone subsystem at the moment, but you have to give away your privacy. With a Windows Phone you pay more, get less functionality but keep yourself to yourself. And with Apple you pay even more, you may or may not keep your information private and join the mass of fan-boys.

So what to do? How much more am I willing to pay to keep my information private? And how much functionality am I prepared to forgo for the same aim? And what about you?

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