Privacy (again!)

Are our expectations regarding online privacy changing?

I may be wrong about this, but in the last few weeks I seem to have noticed a weary acceptance from many of my clients that online privacy is now known to be a myth, so “why bother trying to keep private information private?”

Large eye through a magnifying glassThis often crops up when I am installing, upgrading, or registering something online on behalf of one of my computer support clients. When it comes to the impertinent questions asked on web forms, I get vaguely embarrassed. I don’t want to ask the client for the information and I don’t want them to give it up to cyberspace. In the past, the client would often ask things such as “what do they want it for?” or “do I have to complete it?”. This has never been universal, of course. There are lots of people whose attitude has always been “I’ve got nothing to hide, so why shouldn’t I give them the information?”

Nevertheless, I do have a feeling that things are changing from two directions:

  • The client now seems to be more likely to say something along the lines of “Why not give it to them. We now know we’re being spied on by our own and other governments, so why try and keep information private now”. And even if they are not overtly aware of it, I think most people have some vague idea that behemoths like Google are pooling together the data they have on us from several sources and using it for ever more sophisticated marketing purposes. It feels as if we’re losing the battle to keep private information private, so why bother trying?
  • The organisations seeking the data seem to be getting cheekier in what they ask. It’s now becoming common for information such as “date of birth” to be compulsory when filling in forms. Why? What possible justification is there for this? It may be very useful for the marketing departments of these organisations to know exactly what “market segments” to place us in, but that’s just for THEIR benefit. It’s not for the user’s benefit. Unless there’s some obvious reason (such as relevance for medical or insurance reasons), I really don’t see why they should be so presumptuous as to INSIST that this information be provided. As I’ve said before, in these situations I just lie.

I was gobsmacked by the sting in the tail of an offer by Dropbox that I came across recently. Regular readers will know that I am a great fan of Dropbox. I have it on all my computers and devices. It means that a huge percentage of my most important data is always available to me wherever I am and whatever computers and devices I happen to have with me. And being just a tad nerdy (?!), I have been happy to go along with Dropbox’s clever marketing strategy whereby they give extra free online storage space for introducing new users (use this link, for example, to gain extra free space when joining Dropbox. If you do, I will also get some more free space.) and for taking part in other promotions. That’s fine. The nerd in me is quite chuffed that my free 2gb Dropbox account has now swelled to 13.8gb.

So, I followed the link when I recently discovered that if I installed an email program called Mailbox on my iPad and then “joined” it to my Dropbox account, I could instantly earn another gigabyte of free online storage. I just couldn’t believe my eyes, though, when I saw the terms and conditions attached to this offer (see figure 1).

Mailbox Permissions Dialog Box
Figure 1. Give Mailbox (owned by Dropbox) access to all my Dropbox data? I think not.

Are they really saying what it seems they are saying? Are they really asking me to give them access to all of the data in my Dropbox account? All the private, business, medical, professional, and random data that is in my supposedly safe, secure account? I’m staggered at the thought of the implications of giving all this personal information away. I’m staggered at the cheek of Dropbox in asking me to do it. I’m yet more staggered at the thought that they wouldn’t have put this cunning plan together unless they thought that at least some of their users would go along with it.

I think I probably need some kind of reality check, because I’m about as staggered as it’s possible to be while still capable of standing. Is it just me? In the article in which I first learned about this wheeze, there was mention of the condition of opening up one’s data, but no expression of surprise, disapproval or anything else.

By the way, I should just add that I know that all of the above behaviour only applies to computer users over the age of forty. Anyone younger than that seems only too happy to spew all their private and personal stuff out online. That will no doubt end, eventually, when it finally sinks in that this is a very bad idea. It will be too late for an entire generation but, hopefully, the following generation will have learned that something said on Facebook at 12 years old may rule them out from a job interview ten years later.

Or have Dropbox got it right? Are we all – young and old – just going to give up on our privacy?

Not me. I can live without another gigabyte of online storage.

(Last updated 08/09/2023)