17 Nov 2009

Your worth: somewhere between 37 cents and $20

November 17, 2009 501A, assignments, responses Comments Off

I think the most striking things in the CNBC program “Big Brother” were not the extent and use of the surveillance technology by both private firms and the government (because honestly, if you don’t know that’s happening, you’re really just not paying attention), but these comments by Dr. Joseph Atick:

“Big Brother if left and allowed to happen, would happen. Our job as responsible human beings in society is to make sure that is not to occur.”

“It is not technology that is going to dictate the application of technology in a society. It is society’s needs and values.”

Well, yes.

But here’s the problem: people love to give their rights away.

There’s a reason Facebook is worth billions, and is actually profitable. How much Facebook is worth is up for debate, but a Google search put it at somewhere between $4 and $10 billion. Why so much money for a company whose expected $500 million revenue this year has them cross the line into profitability?

Because You, The Facebook User, are worth somewhere between $11.42 and $28.57. We’ll say $20, just to make it easy. (That’s $7 billion divided by 300 million, if you’re following along at home.)

So where does that profitability come from, since I’m not sending $20/year to FB for a subscription?

Ads. Your eyeballs, every time you use the free service. The information you upload and the games you play. In other words, Facebook sells access to you. And users let them, in many ways, starting with every time the user clicks “allow” so they can find out “What Twilight Character RU?”

And when we’re talking about targeted advertising, people care. They find it kind of gross (a bit of the Uncanny Valley? I know I hate signing into sites that then say “Welcome, Twunked!” I don’t want a site addressing me by name, it’s not warm and welcoming, it’s weird and rude.):

Pew Internet and American Life Project

And while that study’s authors state younger users are perhaps the most sensitive about information used for targeted advertising, most people (across age groups) hate it. People still fall victim to those damn games and apps, who aren’t always so careful with your information, though.

But (and there’s always a but, isn’t there?) people are more aware of that kind of thing, or at least get upset when told. They’re less careful in other ways. For example, when  you’re tagged in a photo, do you want your drunken shenanigans visible to your friend’s friends of friends (which is the default for uploaded pictures, I do believe)? Why won’t Foursquare take residential addresses out of its database? And who are you friends with that would give your address up to Foursquare (and by extension, the rest of the Internet) or Burger King? (Click that last one, it’s where the 37 cents in the title came from.)

As late as 2007, 60 percent of people said they are not worried about how much information is available about themselves online, and only half of those who said they are worried have taken steps to control that information, according to a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

As the amount of surveillance increases, both by the government (red-light cameras, which are being used for a whole host of things completely unrelated to traffic safety) and by private companies, there are fewer and fewer ways to remain anonymous. And while I agree that there should not be an expectation of privacy, how digital worlds are constructed (is there any such thing as a digital private space?) provides new questions about the nature of anonymity, and ideas of anonymity that do not necessarily agree with those about privacy. Must you exclude yourself from digital culture to avoid private firms assembling that dossier on you? Does “public” mean “accessible from any computer, anywhere”? (Oh wait, that’s a bad example. Criminals shouldn’t have civil rights. It’s FOR THE CHILDREN.)

And as angry as I am about the government using private data collection as a way to circumvent legal strictures about assembling data on private citizens, there are some bright spots, policy-wise and otherwise.

[I spoke too soon. To find that last link, as it was one of the few on this page that was not culled from the list of things tagged "privacy" in my delicious account — there's more, go read — I got this:

forbes is watching me

Ew. Now I'm all bummed about the state of the world again. Thanks, Forbes.]

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