8 min read

We’re So Close To a Better Future If Only We’d Shut Up About Privacy

Welcome to the new world order, your information is out there, so why not have it benefit you?
We’re So Close To a Better Future If Only We’d Shut Up About Privacy
Photo by Max Bender / Unsplash
Originally written for Hacker Noon on Medium.

Welcome to the new world order. Your information is out there, so why not have it benefit you?

I originally wrote this previous to Zuckerberg appearing before Congress. It would seem post his “testimony” that there will be no regulation of Facebook coming. The old man brigade that is the US government doesn’t even grasp how or what Facebook is, nor do they have the savviness to moderate its spread and influence.

As the raucous chatter continues around Facebook’s now nearly four-year-old lax personal data protection mechanisms¹, I’d like to take a moment and give you, dear reader, a better response to the ongoing privacy debate.

Are you ready?

Would you please repeat after me?

Dear Facebook², how do I give you even more of my data?

There are caveats, of course.

In return for being given even more access to my personal information, I ask for two things; protect that data, make it clear when and how you share it and, even more important, make my life better.

This goes for all the major tech platforms and service providers; you can have all the information you want about where I go, what I watch, with whom I interact, the emails I write, the bands I listen to, the products I purchase, if
( big if ), in return, you get moving on truly personalizing the information, services, and products I get back.

What I’d like, in essence, is an individualized operating system.

An OS, for one, focused on alleviating the burden from my days, highlighting that which makes me happiest and bringing to life the future we’ve been promised for so long.

Use data to make it easier for me to find and consume what I want, how and when I want it.

Your job ( tech platforms and soon governments ) is to deliver the technological utopia we deserve to me ( well, all of us ), systems that anticipate our needs, connect the dots in our lives and remove all that pesky friction from our days.

From a Google patent filing:

Like the image above, not every usage has to be grossly invasive.


How a Better Future Could Look

What else could the Facebooks and Googles of the world do with broader access to our information ( and advances in Machine Learning⁴ )?

A shortlist, with me as an example;

  1. I like white Chuck Taylors ( Converse ) sneakers, and I buy a pair ( or two ) every year. An intelligent platform, filled with the data from my email ( receipts ) and web searches ( converse shoes on sale ) should be able to tell me when it’s time to replace my current pair ( tread wear based on the purchase date or previous purchase history) and then advise me when I’m in the vicinity of a retailer who has the ones I like, in my size, on sale, around the corner ( or available online and automatically ordered for delivery ).
  2. I turned 42 this year ( presents still accepted ) and could use better guidance on my health like most of us. If my medical records were in an open system, combined with my food shopping habits and lifestyle ( gym time + restaurant visits and frequency of kale purchases ), they could be matched with an extensive data set of other 42-year-olds with similar information and used to provide predictive medical advice and better diagnoses.³
  3. I loathe email. Everyone wants it gone. It refuses to die. It’s not going anywhere. Inside of the mess that is email, not all messages are created equal; there should be no reason why a system that knows me better couldn’t sort emails into actionable and informational groupings, handle the easy responses ( knowing when I’m free, or what the status of a project is ), highlight to me the items that require attention and ensure that I never again see a spam message in my inbox.
  4. A good portion of the internet already believes that Facebook is listening to our conversations, let them I say. If I am demonstrating a clear interest in something, say a musician or new movie, why wouldn’t I want that musical content to surface the next time I open Google Music or Spotify, or to receive a notification when tickets become available to a show or movie opening, the cost again instantly debited from my account ( post voice verification of course ).
  5. I’ve wished for years that we’d move past the age of our logging data and into the era of machines measuring what we tell them and giving us actionable intelligence. It’s all well and good that my smartwatch counts how many steps I’ve taken or that MyFitnessPal lets me input the foods I eat. But these passive inputs aren’t doing much more than filling pretty charts. An app that scans my face and body for changes applies sentiment analysis to the language in my social media posts, watches what I’m eating and how often I am active, then suggests activities to improve my physical health and mental well-being that would be something.

Dozens of other examples are easily imagined. Suffice to say that the machines around us and the systems that power those machines are getting sophisticated enough to support this kind of vision, so wouldn’t you like the devices around us to do more?

Isn’t it time that we’re aided to a greater degree by the massive amount of technology and computing power at our disposal?

We’re on our way, check out Google’s latest campaign: “Make Google Do It” — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eegp9AaqbxE

Accepting This Personal Data Future

There are two universal truths when it comes to our data;

  1. To the technology platforms, our data is only good on aggregate; individually, it’s nearly worthless
  2. To consumers, understanding our individual preferences, motivations, and passions is the holy grail in terms of how to identify ways to make our lives better

An interesting split, and the core of why flying off the handle about how much data Facebook, Google, et al., have about us, isn’t helping things.

Facebook and Google are data aggregators masked as advertising platforms; they cannot convince brands to give them money unless they deliver a large volume of customers.

To deliver at scale means that brands have no clue they’re advertising to me, Kerry Morrison. Instead, they choose a bucket that I fit into ( along with many others ) and try to interest me in buying something through ads on the platform(s).

Have those buckets gotten well targeted? Yes, they have, but they’re still just groups of nameless consumers.

Ex. In Facebook’s ad platform, I can create a list of all the men, aged 40–60, who live in Seattle, own dogs, speak English and have discussed mortgages. Using this exact breakdown, Facebook will allow me to advertise to roughly 84,000 people, none of whom I will ever know the personal details on, but my message will reach.

By the way, this level of insight is nothing new and why any digital marketer you talk to about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica responds back with some version of…well duh.

This level of targeting has been around for years, it’s been very effective in getting us to buy things, but it’s a myopic view that only gets us part of the way to where we need to go for true personalization.

These traditional approaches focus on what customers buy, view, or consume, which only results in a product-centric view, limiting customer understanding.

The evolution that we’re in the early days of is a mix of products ( because we still want and need our “things” ) wrapped in a layer of consumer convenience at the end of the day.

It’ll be interesting to see which new companies spin up to handle these new convenience services ( though competing against Google will be hard ).

Unlike the current players, these new groups will make human services the basis of their data collection efforts, moving away from search or content delivery.

Apple, of course, is the outlier here in that they make their money primarily from hardware and do the best job of protecting the privacy of their users.

Could Apple be the one to take digital convenience(s) to the next level?

How Much Is This Future Vision Worth To You

This, folks, is where we need to decide whether or not we’re getting an actual transfer of value.

Are we comfortable putting our information into the hands of big technology companies if the trade-off is being sold to and having our lives made simpler?

To ensure this brighter future, the technology platforms have to work harder at earning our trust, protecting our information and inserting transparency into the process.

If machine learning and algorithms help manage our lives, then those systems need to be audited regularly to prevent the wrong kind of biases from creeping in.

They need to be secured with the highest levels of encryption, further anonymized ( at times ), and opt-out controls are put in place for the people who would prefer not to participate.

If Privacy Is Still Your Biggest Fear

If none of the above has convinced you, and you’re still hung up on privacy, I want you to understand three things:

  1. It’s too late, cats out of the bag
    Yes, the big tech companies can do better at protecting the data they have on us. Still, the systems they have built are predicated on having our personal data and are far too valuable to change in any meaningful way. You watch, Facebook will make some apologies, they may even appear before Congress, but they will not fundamentally change anything they do day to day. Again, let’s be clear: they closed the access that allowed Cambridge Analytica to steal user data long ago, which is a good sign, but they can do more.
  2. We’re better for it
    Aside from the future ideas highlighted above, it’s clear that we benefit from how this data is being used today; products we want are brought to our attention, news we’re interested in is surfaced, tv and movies we’d be interested in are highlighted, friends are recommended — these are all uses of personal data. They’re leading to positive experiences for many of us.
  3. Better protection is coming
    What’s happened with Facebook ( and the far more egregious data security mishaps of the past couple of years — looking at you, Equifax, are bringing the privacy and personal data discussions to the forefront, people are educating themselves, knowledge is power and the more we know about what and how people are using our data for, the better questions we’ll be able to ask to those wanting our data in the first place.

The question comes down to whether you want to embrace the future or fight for the past. I understand if you are wary, but being an alarmist isn’t helping anyone. Machines are really good at processing data, so why don’t we let them do that?

Conclusion

How well versed are you in what is happening with your personal data?

Can you imagine a scenario where you benefit from big tech having so much access to your information?

Will you put more thought into what you put online?

Think for a moment about the value, the connections, the experiences you’ve been able to have because of your usage of Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. Might it have been worth it to be the product?

If this new future isn’t for you, I understand. I’d ask again if you think of the value these platforms bring, but I will be the first to support your move away from them and paid products with stringent privacy controls.

You be you.