Search engine giant Google (GOOG) made headlines last week thanks to five words:
“… no legitimate expectation of privacy.”
Even ignoring the fact that the quote — concerning those who email Gmail users — was ripped out of context, the incident adds to the growing list of privacy concerns in an increasingly digital world.
But for all their frequency, the concerns tend to be short-lived. An uproar caused today — whether about Google, Facebook (FB), Apple (AAPL) or the NSA — will die down tomorrow. Why? Because more people are increasingly valuing convenience over privacy:
- Let’s say consumers were upset that Gmail bots screen their incoming emails. Then hopefully they’re aware that competitors like Yahoo (YHOO), AOL (AOL) and Microsoft’s (MSFT) Hotmail — now just Outlook — already have similar business models that use similar practices. Spam filters and email search capabilities simply require a certain amount of automated scanning.
- That kind of trade-off is true across the web, too. Facebook grabs our information to target us with supposedly relevant ads. (Too bad it can’t distinguish between cookies from sites I visit for leisure and sites I visit for research.) And its recent Graph Search lets others find us based on specific information — enough for some to call it “the ultimate stalker search engine.”
- Sure, Apple claims to place a priority on protecting our customers’ personal data — always asking for permission to link accounts or send notifications. But even it cooperates with U.S. law enforcement agencies seeking private data about its customers, while a recent ReadWrite article says it falls far behind even its peers on the privacy front.
- Perhaps the most powerful example is people who use their smartphones to broadcast their physical locations to the entire Internet. Having GPS tracking on your smartphone conveniently allows you to use mapping services like Google Maps for driving directions. If you have tracking activated, your smartphone knows where you are and can tell you exactly how to get to your destination. Of course, the same feature allows retailers to track your movement through their stores. Companies like Euclid Analytics aggregate the data to show companies like Home Depot (HD) what people are looking at and how long they stay.
- However, as far as privacy risks go, Euclid is nothing compared to apps like the now-defunct Girls Around Me, which examined data from women who checked into places on FourSquare — an app that shows the Internet your current location — and mined info from their Facebook profiles to offer up personal information about women in the area. Names, pictures, age, education and personal interests were all available from people who weren’t exceptionally protective of their Facebook privacy settings.
But for all the potential risk, people still use these kinds of websites and applications all the time. Why? Because it’s convenient. Many people like to look up local restaurant reviews on your phone, and it’s (apparently) fun to show your friends where you are throughout the day.
And to some extent, filling out your hometown on an online form or posting personal photos on the Internet, then expecting that data to only go where you want — even if you click the right privacy settings — is just naïve, given what we know today.
A lack of privacy is simply the cost of interacting on the web — it wouldn’t change much if you migrated from Facebook to Twitter or Google+. Most users seem perfectly happy to pay that cost to some extent or another, but should they be?
As with most things, that should be a personal decision. But no matter what, users need to be informed before making that decision.
Privacy protection isn’t impossible. But consumers should know that it’s going to take more than a little bit of effort … and it’s not going to be convenient.
Adam Benjamin is an Assistant Editor of InvestorPlace. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.