Educating Consumers about “Erosion of Privacy”

How do you educate consumers about the erosions of their online privacy? What percent of Internet users understand that this is an issue? Can they be educated before it becomes moot?

I’m a privacy nut. I’m not psychotic about it, but I pay attention. I do not subscribe to the minority opinion that online privacy is dead and we should all open our kimonos and call it a day. To wit, I’ve been spending 80+ hours a week the last year of my life working to prevent that minority opinion from becoming reality.

Nearly every day I run into some web site, piece of software, or the like that gives me pause. The latest was Firefox 2.0. I’ve been a Firefox fan and user for a long time now. I have used the search tool on the Firefox Navigation bar extensively – it’s a great tool. With Firefox 2.0, the text entry field has a new feature: while you type, it can make suggestions (returned from the search engine you’re querying) re: what you are searching for.

While this seems innocuous (and it certainly is not non-helpful), it changes things. Historically, if I wanted to search for illegal steroids or bible quotes or indulge a random fetish, I could take an explicit action to search for those concepts on Google (et. al.) with the knowledge and understanding that Google would make a record of my search for future use. But with this new Firefox feature, Google not only gets all my search terms, but also a keystroke-by-keystroke stream of the meta-data that leads up to each of my searches.

For example, type “test” into the box for Google and it suggests, among other things, testosterone, testicles, and testament. What information could a smart set of heuristics extract about me from that? What if they could marry that with my history of completed searches? And so on and so forth.

Maybe the search engine companies won’t track these sorts of things, but I’m not willing to bet money on that. As the attention economy matures (and it is quite immature right now), these sorts of preparatory actions and other meta-data about our intentions and attentions is the kind of thing that will be leveraged – they will have to be leveraged for companies to maintain competitiveness.

This “Show Suggestions” feature defaults on when you install Firefox 2.0. I hope the Firefox development community thinks hard about defaulting it off instead.

Ultimately there are only two ways to manage this issue. Either the community of users picks up the torch and demands its rights; or the community of tool creators picks up the torch and works with “privacy as the default” thinking. The latter seems hopeful. The former seems daunting. The alternative makes my stomach turn.

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