Do you care? We’ve gone so far down the internet highway that we rarely ask that question anymore. But it’s still pertinent. Do you care that your privacy has been, and will be, repeatedly invaded — and that anything you share (willingly or otherwise) on the internet can and will be used against you?
I think I know the answer. I don’t have access to your information. I didn’t pose as an academic to download a treasure trove of social media data. I haven’t coded a programmatic advertising platform aimed at enabling a pair of machines to automatically decide which marketing messages you’ll be more receptive to at any given moment. And yet, just by sharing this medium with you, I feel I know you well enough to know your answer.
You don’t give a shit.
The story of Cambridge Analytica accessing your personal data on Facebook, supposedly creating a spot-on psychographic profile, and then weaponizing your own personality against you with a series of well-worded messages is now sweeping the media. And it will get louder. And it will pass. And then, I promise, there will be another story about your data being stolen, borrowed, hacked, misused, shared, bought, sold and on and on.
It’s a story as old as the Internet and, by now, as familiar as folk tales, nursery rhymes, and rom-com story tropes. Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl. Boy and girl use a third party app on Facebook and begin to receive more political messages in their feed. Boy loses girl but doesn’t care because boy finds Twitter, Fortnite and internet porn.
You know the the story of the internet. You know, by now, that there is no such thing as a free online service. You either pay with money or you pay by giving up some of your personal data.
How long have you known this simple fact? Almost as long as Mark Zuckerberg has known it. Let’s take a brief trip back in time to the days after Facebook’s earliest iteration emerged and a 19 year-old Zuckerberg was sitting in his Harvard dorm room instant-messaging with a friend:
Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard
Zuck: Just ask.
Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses…
[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?
Zuck: People just submitted it.
Zuck: I don’t know why.
Zuck: They “trust me.”
Zuck: Dumb fucks.
There was clearly no reason for Mark Zuckerberg to go on tour of all fifty states. He already knew us pretty well back when he was 19.
I don’t know if we really trusted Zuck. We trusted in something much deeper: We trusted the internet. We made peace with the notion that the door we opened to peer at the outside world also let the outside world peer back at us. We accepted the idea the upside of social networking was worth the downside of ceding our privacy to the machine.
Well, I say we. But it wasn’t all of us. Some people decided it was a bad deal; they believed that sharing very little was the smartest way to interact with the internet. And interestingly, it just so happens that there is a lot of overlap between this group of internet users and the people who built and run its most pervasive services.
Like, say, for example, Mark Zuckerberg.
“Mr. Zuckerberg goes to great lengths to protect the privacy of his personal life.” That line, from a lawyer, appeared in a 2015 Matt Richtel piece in the NYT: For Tech Titans, Sharing Has Its Limits.
In the piece, we learn that certain wealthy individuals require those who work on their homes (and therefore become aware of certain details of their private lives) to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). While we’ve become all too accustomed to hearing about NDAs during the Trump era, one rarely associates them with the guy who installs your hardwood floors. And yet, it turns out that such documents are quite common. And the demand for such NDAs often is made by someone — and we’re not just talking about famous founders — who works for a tech company. And not just any tech companies, but the very ones that suggest (in public statements and in product design) that the path to our utopian salvation is marked at nearly every turn by the transparency enabled and encouraged by their wares.
So what are we to make of learning that the merchants of transparency are going to extreme lengths to keep us from knowing that it’s walnut under their kitchen chairs when they sit down for a family dinner, and oak that lines the floors of their kids’ bedrooms, and that sustainable bamboo is the surface material beneath the stand-up desk on which they type out less and less prohibitive iterations of their corporate privacy policies?
Here’s exactly what we should make of it…
They are right.
They are right to want privacy. They are right to want to keep their personal lives walled off from anyone from nosy neighbors to potential thieves to, well, Matt Richtel. They should lock their doors and lock down their information. They are right not to want you to know where they live, with whom they live, or how much they spend. They’re right to want to plug a cork in the social media champagne bottle we’ve shaken up in our blind celebration of glass houses.
They are right not to want to toss the floor planks that represent their last hint of personal privacy into the social media wood chipper. They are right in their unwillingness to give in to the seeming inevitability of the internet sharing machine. Do you really think it’s a coincidence that most of the buttons you press on the web are labeled with the word submit?
The folks who have hit it big in the tech business don’t submit because it’s crazy to submit. They see through the transparency. No one knows the prizes and pitfalls of this era better than they do. And they know the trade-off is not worth it.
Yes, there is an almost hilarious hypocrisy of seeing marketers of the message that information wants to be free sitting on the porch with a shotgun telling you kids to get off their lawn.
But don’t focus on the hypocrisy. Focus on the fact that they’re still right. It’s their goddamn lawn. Their business is their business. And yours is yours.
So you should follow their lead. Don’t do what they say. Do what they do. Better yet, do what they NDA.
But first you have to care. Tech companies know that the bad stories come and go. They know they’ve got you hooked. And I know that’s it’s not all about making an active decision to share. An increasing amount of your data is out there through no doing of your own and ends up in the wrong hands because Equifax or some other corporation leaves the latch open on the front door. But when it comes to stories like the one about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, you’re willingly handing your information over.
There’s a pretty simple rule: never share anything on any site anywhere on the internet regardless of any privacy settings unless you are willing to accept that the data might one day be public.