The big question: do we want sharing culture or is privacy our priority?
Published 16/06/2014 | 02:30
When does a company's tendency to monitor your preferences cease being 'handy' and start to become a 'threat to privacy'? That's one of the big questions likely to determine how much we find ourselves being tracked every day.
Right now, it's approaching extreme levels. Supermarkets are starting to experiment with technology that tracks what your eyes look at to collect marketing information about you.
Online retailers are beginning to build up customer profiles so deep that they are confident of predicting your future. For example, Amazon recently achieved a patent for 'anticipatory shipping', a system where it will deliver a product to your local depot before you've even ordered it. This is how confident they are that they know us.
The basic question, then, is whether this kind of activity is useful to us or a step too far in what companies know about us?
And underpinning that question is an even more fundamental challenge: do we see ourselves developing more as a 'sharing' culture or a 'privacy' culture?
This is far from a theoretical question. Battles are raging across Europe as to what the basic rules of engagement for the use of our data should be.
Last month, the European Court Of Justice scored a significant blow for the 'privacy' camp by ruling that Google must delete search results of information that people feel is inappropriate about themselves.
The ruling has polarised opinion, with a positive reception in Germany and France (where online privacy is culturally prized) but a negative reception in Britain and the US, which is balanced more on the side of freedom of information.
In Ireland, we tend to side slightly more with the information-sharing side than the stricter privacy side. While there are clearly self-interested economic reasons for this (we have most of the world's big web and social media firms here, employing thousands of people), we may also be culturally closer to the American viewpoint. And that means embracing information-sharing rather than getting paranoid about it.
There are obvious pros and cons to both sides of the argument. The advantage of a liberal data society, where citizens don't mind being tracked, is that it presents a lot of opportunities for technology businesses similar to the ones creating hundreds of new jobs in Dublin (particularly) every month. It should also make it easier to save time and cost when ordering products and it could eventually allow much more efficient public services.
"Right now, the places that create the most jobs embrace a collaborative culture over the strictest privacy culture," said former RTE journalist and founder of €18m startup Storyful, Mark Little, at an industry gathering last month.
"Yet in countries like Germany, the number one thing they talk to you about is the need to protect privacy. I think we might be missing something in Europe. We need to amplify openness."
On the other side of the argument, an overly easygoing attitude toward who has our data and what they do with it sometimes goes hand in hand with letting organisations and state authorities pry too deeply into our lives.
For example, it may be no coincidence that the countries with the most culturally liberal approach to commercial information-gathering – the US and Britain – are also the ones that are most advanced on mass-surveillance programs aimed at the everyday phone calls, text messages and emails of their own citizens.
What's more, the general public appear to accept this: there were few mass protests or demonstrations in either Washington or London in the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations about the US and UK governments tapping into customer accounts of those countries' most-used telecoms and web companies.
The basic question is this: does it bother you that Facebook, Amazon and Google track you around the web? Would it bother you if you knew that the State was doing the same?