Many of us would be annoyed by the divulging of our private information such as where you live and many others would rationalize, “Well, if I have to get these ads to support the services provided by this site, then I’d rather they be targeted to my interests instead of a random choice --- either way I’m going to get the ads so that I won’t have to pay for the services the website provides. So the choice becomes: do I want to pay for the use of the website (like any other commodity) or do I pay by sharing some of my personal information? To paraphrase an old saying that sums this up, “When a website claims to be “free” you are the customer and you pay with your private information”.

In my experience, the younger generation is less concerned with protecting their privacy than is the older generation and the older you are the more the concern. During the early days of the Internet a story circulated about a fellow on the subway handing out forms that, when filled out, would capture much of the rider’s personal data. What was the gift to the riders for providing this information? A cheap plastic ballpoint pen. So, if you’re willing to give up your privacy for a cheap pen, it would seem to follow that you would do the same in return for the services of a Google search engine or a social platform such as Facebook.

An article by Cameron Summerson summarizes the argument for using Google and Facebook and paying with personal data. (If you don’t want to type that long URL, it might be simpler to search on “why it’s not a big deal that google and facebook knows about you”).

In a nutshell, he argues that you are not selling your personal data to the two tech giants. At best, you are leasing it to them in return for using the services the giants provide. Besides , he argues, Google and Facebook provide very strong security for your data (which makes sense because it is valuable to them.). Likewise, the advertiser who pays Google and Facebook to display his advertisement in your searches or feeds has a self interest in providing strong security for your data keeping it safe and private for the same reason --- it is valuable. Once the user clicks on their ad and is taken to the advertiser’s website then any information that you give about yourself is your own personal choice. And finally both Google and Facebook as well as most Big Tech companies claim that the data is anonymized before being distributed. “ Data Anonymization” is defined as a "process by which personal data is irreversibly altered in such a way that a data subject can no longer be identified directly or indirectly, either by the data controller alone or in collaboration with any other party." (Wikipedia). So the question becomes do we take Google and Facebook at their word? Can they really keep our data private? But even if we choose to trust them, to make matters more complicated, it is possible for a hacker to de- anonymize the anonymized data to the point where your identity is discovered! “De-anonymization is the practice of matching anonymous data (also known as de-identified data) with publicly available information, or auxiliary data, in order to discover the individual to which the data belong to. “ (Wikipedia)

However, to make matters even more complex, de-anonymization is not foolproof and the name of the person can be found using simple computer techniques. For example,

” Mr. X lives in ZIP code 02138 and was born July 31, 1945. ... narrows down the population, so much so that the combination of (gender, ZIP code, birthdate) was unique for about 87% of the U.S. population. ... show that people can potentially be re-identified by these kinds of data, not that everyone will be.” (

By now you might be asking: how is all this head-spinning information useful to me? We protect our privacy by reading what the experts have to say; if you search on the phrase “how to protect my privacy” you will be rewarded with a plethora of sites to visit that provide advice. In fact I made this search and was impressed by an article in Time Magazine entitled “11 Simple Ways to Protect Your Privacy” by Christina DesMarais. She makes suggestions that range from “Don’t fill out your social media profile” to “Lie when setting up password security questions”. Although these sound counter-intuitive, if you search on the title to the article, DesMarais explains why these are reasonable precautions.

How to protect our privacy is not a new problem spawned by the Internet. The issue has been around for at least 100 years. “Lewis Brandeis and his law partner Samuel Warren published “The Right to Privacy” in the Harvard Law Review in 1890, where it became the first major article to advocate for a legal right to privacy.” (Wikipedia)

Brandeis succinctly summed up his beliefs in the much-quoted phrase, “ Privacy is the right to be let alone” He was right over 100 years ago and he is right today.

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