Privacy: 10 Things You Should Know About Your Data and the Future

(Hey. I’m the author of “Privacy: And How We Get It Back” from Curious Reads. You can buy the book for less than your usual trip to Starbucks here.)

I’m working on the keynote presentation for my new book. What follows is a loose outline of that talk.

Here’s the draft for “The End of Privacy” presentation …

1. Privacy is only a recent invention in human history, beginning in the 1700s with the Industrial Revolution.

It may be that, like Pogs or using leeches to treat hemorrhoids, privacy had its moment, and that moment ended in 1994 with the start of the Internet Economy.

Netscape, the first company from that era to go public and make millions, harvested data on its users for internal and commercial purposes. So from the very beginning of the publicly accessible Internet and World Wide Web, the business model was established as invading user privacy in the name of profit. (This was also true over at AOL, as discussed in the book.)

 

2. So, assuming privacy is dead in 2018, I think that changes the conversation we have to have with each other.

That conversation must change from “We have to protect our privacy” to “We have to manage our data and choose whom and how we share that data with.”

Those two may sound like similar concepts, but they’re not. I take the position that, in 2018, you have no privacy. You have data, and now we’re all in the business of managing the data that’s out there about us.

3. That might sound extreme, but between the Yahoo!  and Equifax data breaches last year — and what’s going on with Intel right now — and that we’ve been willingly giving our information to companies like Google and Facebook for years, there definitely is a highly detailed file on every one of us floating around and being bought and sold by advertisers, data traders, and other parties.

So, I’m of the opinion that even the most concerned citizen among us, who have taken great lengths to protect their privacy, now have a data file on them too. There’s nowhere to hide anymore.

But the presence of the data file, while creepy, doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

(Although I am curious if anyone has read “How to Disappear” by Eileen C. Horan and Frank Ahearn and wants to make a serious attempt at doing so for research purposes. The thought crosses my mind occasionally … Usually, after I tell people I’m a Bills fan.)

4. There is a (kind of terrible) documentary called “We Live In Public” about an experiment/startup in the ‘90s that showed early attempts at live streaming people’s day-to-day lives. Sort of like what you can do now with Twitch or Facebook on your phone.

I do think, quality aside, that the project and documentary was on to something, and the world we live in now is very much one where we all live in public.

I take that even further and have decided to try to live as publicly as I can. As long as it doesn’t harm someone else, everything there is to know about me is out there in my books and on this website and in videos when I do presentations.
For example, if you’ve read either of my last two books, you know I’m divorced. That I’m an Athiest with a fondness for religion, own a Subaru Forester, like (or at least have a begrudging tolerance for) the New York Mets, and have a superheroine-in-peril fetish.

You also know I write comic books, have two mentally disabled brothers and a mom who is probably insane, all of whom that I help take care of.

I could go on, but you get the idea. There isn’t much about me that you don’t know. Short of live streaming my day-to-day life, which would just consist of me playing with cats and reading, there isn’t much more to me than what’s out there.

Living like this is a deliberate decision.

A: Because I think this is the world we’re moving into, where everyone knows everything about everyone. We’re probably there already, but we don’t want to admit it.

B: Because everything I’ve ever read about persuasion or being a successful storyteller comes down to building empathy and trust with your audience. The more you know about me, the more you care about what I have to say.

So there’s a practical reason I share these things with you and an idealist reason I share these things with you.

I think the world would be way more interesting, and fun, if we were open and honest with each other about what we want and why we want it in life. That doesn’t mean you have to be an aggressive asshole about it (see: Radical Honesty.)

And certainly, there’s an appropriate time and place to share your interests with others.

Let me give you just one example.

My former mother-in-law, Wendy, whom I loved dearly and the privacy book is dedicated to, once outed my Wonder Woman / superheroine-in-peril fetish in front of the entire extended family.

We were gathered around the kitchen table and my ex-wife was opening presents. One of her cousins had given her a bunch of folders with Wonder Woman on it.

Wendy, seeing the folders, turned to me with a smile and knowing look and said out loud, “Oh, Wonder Woman! Brandon loves Wonder Woman”

Only she, my ex-wife, and I knew what she meant by that, but it was hilarious and at the same time embarrassing, because obviously my former cousins and other extended family members don’t need to know what I want someone to wear when I dominate them in the bedroom.

Put another way, all because everyone does know everything about you doesn’t mean you’re walking around advertising everything there is to know at all times to all people. I’m not suggesting or advocating that you do what I’m doing.

What I am suggesting is that anyone can easily know anything about you if they choose to look it up or even purchase your data. That’s the world we now live in.

This means I think, you should openly share and be honest with people in appropriate contexts.

Don’t try to hide anything.

On the negative side, this might be slightly awkward at first, but in the long run (and every self-help and dating book ever published backs me up on this), being open and clear about who you are and what you want builds more stable and longer lasting relationships and connections with others.

5. Think about it this way. When we talk about the government snooping on you, what do we say in response? “It’s ok. I have nothing to hide.” But usually, we do have something to hide.

What I’m suggesting is that we’re moving past the “I have nothing to hide” thing by taking ownership of who we are and the data we choose to create. It’s all out there now. So we have to own it.

I hate to be the one to say this, but in most cases (myself included) our fellow humans are really boring. Barring any sort of criminal activity, there’s not much that you do that’s really worth hiding to begin with.

You may think otherwise, but I encourage you to question why that is. Most people ruin their lives by not communicating effectively with the people around them about what they want or need. For ages, I was one of those people too.

There are some exceptions here. Witness Relocation. Trying to avoid a stalker or an abusive person. Being an activist in a country where being one can get you killed. I don’t have an easy answer for each of those situations. That’s all part of the discussion we need to have with each other.

Should there be a right to be forgotten? If the government or police relocate you, is it even possible for them to delete everything there is about your previous life? I don’t know, but we need to figure this all out, and we need to do so fast.

6. In a world where you now have to manage your data, what does that mean where the government is concerned? I think, probably to our detriment, that most privacy advocates are focused on what the government does and doesn’t know about you. But honestly the federal government in the US, and others, have been spying on you since World War I, and they’re going to be spying on you (in some capacity) long after we’re all gone.

This has been true going back to the early days of the Republic, and it’s worth noting that there’s no better spy these days then your friends sitting next to you with their tracking devices and microphones in their pockets (aka, their smartphone.)

So, I don’t really care what the government does and doesn’t do with my data. I personally don’t think all the data they collect is worth a damn. (If it is, the NSA/CIA/FBI have done a terrible job of communicating to the public that their mass data collection has been useful).

Truthfully, I’m apathetic when it comes to what the US, or any government, does or doesn’t do with your data. If they want it, they’re going to get it. So I say let them have it and let’s focus on the problems we can solve, like the multibillion-dollar industry that now exists based entirely around collecting and sharing your data, often to your detriment and without your consent.

7. What we should care about are companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple (and thousands of other tech and advertising companies) do with your data.

For example, I don’t care that Netflix is collecting my viewing habits in order to provide me with better entertainment options. That’s totally fine.

But with all these companies I want a few things that I think are fair and reasonable to ask for if they’re going to continue invading our privacy …

First, the Terms of Services model that exists today is completely broken and needs to be thrown out. In plain English, and in as few words as possible, the company should tell you who is collecting your data. What’s being done with that data, whether or not it’s properly protected (i.e., your data is not just sitting on some unprotected server unencrypted), and how to opt-out if you don’t want your data collected in the first place.

If you do want to opt-out, you should be given the option to pay for an ad-free version of whatever product it is that you’re using. Spotify does this, why can’t Facebook? I know I am not alone in wanting to have the option to pay a little extra in exchange for not being creeped on.

If you can pay for Netflix, you can pay for a version of Facebook without the creepiness.

8. Second, you have to understand (and tell as many people as you can) that your data has value. We’re talking 19% of America’s GDP in just the advertising industry alone.

That’s trillions of dollars. So, you should be compensated for your data. This is something that’s going to take a lot of different forms, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution here.

In the book, I talk about how Facebook and Google should pay you an annual license fee or a small micropayment per day each time your data is used to sell you something (or your data is sold to others.)

We’re not talking huge chunks of money here, but we need to establish that your data has value, and if your data is being used for whatever reason by commercial interests, you should be compensated by those parties.

Think of it like this. People can’t just walk into your house, take your stuff, and then leave to sell it without consequences. So why do we allow this to happen with your data? If anything, that data may be more valuable than your toaster which is now going for $10 on eBay.

So if you opt-out of data collection on Facebook, they could then turn to you and say, “Hey, did you know we’ll give you $365 a year in exchange for your data if you don’t opt-out?” (If you pay for the creepiness free Facebook, you don’t get that money because they’re not selling your data to anyone else.)

Being compensated for your data can take other forms too. Let’s say you want to contribute information to Google Maps. You should get paid for that. Again, we’re not talking huge dollar amounts here, but you should get something for the information you’re providing. It’s your information to give. It’s your time to provide that information to them.

I’m really excited about things like the Basic Attention Token (BAT) which would compensate you in exchange for your attention from advertisers and publishers. So that’s another instance of a way to get compensated for your data. There’s a lot of ways we can do this, we just have to demand that we move to this new model.

9. Third, there should be consequences for data breaches. If your company didn’t properly backup and secure the data you’ve collected on me, and it falls into criminal hands, you should receive a massive fine. If the security breach is really bad, like Yahoo! Or Equifax where there might have been some insider trading and deliberate efforts to cover up what happened, someone should go to jail. (And the users harmed in such breaches should get a piece of that fine because their data is worth money and they should be compensated for its violation.)

This might seem harsh, but until we start doing this, you’re going to keep reading about how criminals can easily access your data because some company decided not to invest the proper dollars into protecting you. I don’t like or want a lot of government regulation, but if the federal government can’t (or won’t) step in to help protect consumers from having their data stolen, then the States need to step in (or another regulatory body) and make sure someone is watching your back now that everyone knows everything about you and can break how, where, and when you want to share your data without your explicit permission.

And that’s a key concept here. Explicit permission.

Right now everything is so passive in terms of your data being collected, but we need to change that model so that you can provide the specifics as to how, when, and why your data can be collected. Not private companies that don’t have your interests at heart.

Your data, your choice.

10. Finally, none of what I’ve described here should come as much of a surprise or be shocking in any way. A lot of people have been having the “you should be paid for your data” conversation for many years now.

A lot of people know that the Facebook/Google duopoly in advertising and creeping on their customers is wrong.

A lot of what I said here about living in public and everyone knowing everything you already know, on some level, is already happening.

So I’m not suggesting anything new or groundbreaking here. What I am asking for is that we raise our standards. It’s your data. You should be compensated for its use. It’s your data, you should not be punished by algorithms or taken advantage of by companies for providing that data to them, and that those companies should be held to high standards concerning protecting your information.

We can do better. We should do better.

What I am saying to you is this: The fun thing about being an atheist like I am is that you accept life on this Earth is this wonderful accident, and the only thing that really matters is protecting and growing the tribe we call humanity.

Nothing you do may matter, but what does matter is what you do to look out for your family and friends who will be here after you’re gone.

If you accept that to be true, then consider this: We’re going to see, in our lifetime, a lot of jobs wiped out because of advances in AI and robotics.

A lot of the data that’s going to drive that change is data you’re providing for free, right now, to the tech companies and advertisers.

It’s one thing for the tech companies to bang that drum about a universal basic income as a way to compensate the many, many members of your tribe that are about to lose their livelihood.

It’s another for those companies to compensate people for the data they’re providing, that will lead to that job displacement in the first place, so that you and your family have money now to invest in learning new skills, or at the very least, money to put some food on the table.

We, as a species, are terrible at looking into the future and at the big picture. But if we raise our standards and ask to be compensated for our data now, and for that data to be better protected, we can prepare for whatever comes next, regardless of whether or not you or I will be around to see it.