Whiskey, Peanut Butter, and Privacy: A Review of American Past Times

Note: This is a very long post. If you want a tl;dr, here it is: Privacy is dead because it never existed.

Creatures of Habit

My love of whiskey is not a secret.

When I go to my favorite watering hole, the bartender says, “Jack and coke?” before I ever sit down. I’m far from being the only one who gets this treatment. A certain CTO gets a Miller Lite. Our resident social media yogini gets a Stella Artois. We are all creatures of habit, and the more we do something, the more likely we are to continue doing it.

This isn’t only true of our beverage preferences. We buy the same kind of peanut butter trip after trip to the grocery store. Would you fault the grocer for remembering that you’re a choosy mom and offering you a jar of Jif if he noticed you forgot to put one in your basket?

In modern days we often don’t know our grocers, so you might find that to be creepy-stalkerish. There are few places now where we purchase products regularly from the same individual, but that wasn’t always the case.

Your Neighborhood Grocer

Fifty years ago your grocer would’ve likely known how you liked your meat cut, what your favorite ice cream flavor was, and who you were sleeping with.

He also would’ve known the same about every other person in your neighborhood. He would probably be slow to gossip (it wouldn’t be in the best interest of his business), but he might say, “We have a new brand of peanut butter and Mrs. Jones said she’s really enjoying it. Would you like to try it out?”

Why, Yes! If Mrs. Jones likes it I might as well give it a shot. Right?

Superstores and the Rise of the World Wide Web

Having someone at your market who understood your preferences, your relationships, and your community was an asset, not a violation.

That asset was lost in the rise of super Wal-Mart and even further diluted in the early days of the internet. The convenience of known user preferences may have been replaced by a wider selection of goods but was never completely forgotten.

Then suddenly, the internet woke up.

Amazon and Google were the first to actively monitor your habits to your advantage.

Amazon says, "Look! Everyone else liked it!"

I say, “to your advantage” but it was also very clearly to their advantage, in the same way it was in your grocer’s best interest to remind you to buy something you might otherwise do without for a week to avoid another trip to the store. Amazon cornered the market on customer reviews, and also added features like, “Others also bought,” and “X% of the customers who visited this page bought X other product.”

Amazon says, "Don't forget to buy these books too, you smarty pants you!"

They used the data available to them to provide a better customer experience online, and they used that customer experience to win your business.

Google’s first very obvious foray into tracking, or what many called, “snooping,” appeared in Gmail. Google reads your e-mail, and serves ads based on the keywords it finds within.

As soon as I opened this e-mail, the ad at the top of my Gmail swapped out to match the content.

Google also has an interesting integration between Gmail and Google Calendar (GCal). If you send an e-mail to a google address that says, “Hey let’s have lunch next Tuesday at 1pm.” Google will have a box on the sidebar that offers to enter this item into GCal. I use this feature all the time. Is it a privacy invasion? No. I trust Google with both my e-mail and my calendar. The fact that they connect the two makes my life a few clicks easier.

As a society, we adjusted to these features quickly because they were relatively harmless. As far as we could tell, Google and Amazon were only using our data in an anonymous way unless we clearly specified otherwise.

Then came social networks.

Facebook Breaks ALL THE RULEZ

Suddenly, instead of us telling the store what we liked by buying it, we started telling each other what we like by posting about it online for our friends to see.

Most people understand that Facebook keeps the data that they put on the site, although some still think Facebook owes them something for this. (I passionately disagree, but that’s an argument for another day).

What many fail to realize is that Facebook is on almost every webpage you visit. If a page has a “LIKE” button (such as the one to the right in our sidebar or the one at the top of this post), Facebook knows that you are here. You don’t have to click the button for facebook to know you’re here.

It just knows. And they store that data. And they use that data to learn more about your preferences, your relationships, and your community. Right now, Facebook knows more about you than Google or any other website. This is the true value behind Facebook and the reason Mark Zuckerberg is a billionaire.

I’ve heard developers talk for hours amongst themselves on how they avoid the “spying eyes” of Facebook. I’ve listened because I find it interesting that they don’t want Facebook to know these things about them, and they aren’t the only ones who feel that way.

This isn’t necessarily because people don’t trust Mark Zuckerberg or trust Facebook as a company. It’s because people don’t see the direct correlation between what Facebook tracks and the value it provides in return for having that information. It’s obvious what your grocer provides in return for knowing what you like – it isn’t so obvious with Facebook.

Google: Hey, Why Not Us?

Ignoring the experiment that is Google+, Google collectively has the widest used consumer-facing web products in the United States: Search, YouTube, Gmail, Calendar, Documents, Reader, the list goes on. As I mentioned earlier, Google already has a lot of information about you, and uses that information to mutual advantage whenever they can. What Google didn’t do before is what Facebook does – track you when you leave their site.

Google is trying to make it clear they're tracking you so they can provide better products, services, and more targeted ads.

The biggest change in Google’s new privacy policy is exactly that – starting March 1st, Google will tag along with you all over the web. They really hope you like having them as a pet. They’ve been putting up ads all over the place to make sure you know they’re doing this and why it’s good for you.

And survey says, you probably don’t mind. You certainly aren’t going to stop using their (free) products just because they’re following you around. Heck, you might’ve thought they already were following you around. The fact that they try to make the connection between the data they collect and how it benefits you doesn’t hurt either.

Social Sharing and the App Age

More recently, there was a minor snafu around the Path app uploading your contacts without your permission. Some people got upset, Path eventually apologized, and then people realized they should really be upset with Apple.

I might post more about the Path story soon, but in the meantime my advice is that if you don’t want a company to have access to all of the data on your phone, don’t download their app.

I have Path on my phone, so if you are in my contacts list they know we’re buddies. I’m not really sorry about that. After all, if you play Farmville on Facebook and we’re “friends,” Zynga knows all about me, and I’ve never used a single Zynga app.

Hello, Privacy 2.0

The bottom line is that privacy never really did exist. In the small town and neighborhood-based world of yesteryear, everybody knew everybody’s business.

This wasn’t considered a bad thing. Although people got used to and started liking the idea of anonymity online, it hasn’t taken hold enough yet for us to truly fight back against the loss of privacy on the internet.

If you have reason to fear the exposure or sharing of your personal life, don’t put it on the internet. Don’t use “cloud based” services. Don’t use social networks. Don’t download apps on your phone. In fact, you probably shouldn’t have a phone.

In the meantime, I’m going to surf the web and see what kind of shoes all of my friends are buying this season so I won’t feel left out at the next party. I’ll be sure to post pictures on Facebook, Twitter, Path, and other networks so you won’t be left behind either.


Have you been upset about the privacy wars on the internet? Do you guard your data with your life? Share your thoughts with me in the comments. I promise I won’t sell them.